January 8, 2015
In 1993, Oregon’s present governor, John Kitzhaber, then a state senator and a doctor, worked hard to make health care available for the poor through a program that rationed benefits. His efforts, along with those of others, gave birth to the Oregon Health Plan. This was a major step in the reform of our national health care.
Fifteen years after the plan was put into effect, in 2008, the state’s health care rationing program informed cancer patients that the state’s health plan would no longer cover certain treatments that would extend their lives. The costs to the state outweighed any benefit to the individual. One woman wanted the chemotherapy prescribed by her oncologist for her lung cancer. Instead of providing the treatment to contain the cancer, she was offered physician-assisted suicide (cf. Sandy Szwarcat, “Considering the value of life... medical ethical issues at the beginning, middle and end of life,” September 6, 2008).
In effect, Oregon’s health care program was removing the decision on how to care for this woman from the woman herself, her loved ones and her doctor. A third party was making a determination of medical treatment based on the expense to the state. This particular case represents the ever-widening control of our lives by the government. It also signals the changing attitudes to end-of-life issues.
Medicine is a healing art. It is not a science designed to end life, but to care for life. Doctors have been taking the Hippocratic Oath since the fifth century B. C. They have been making the sacred promise to guard their patients’ lives by declaring, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.” But, the dangerous shift in values in our modern, secular society is emptying these words of their meaning.
A robust campaign to make euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide the way to deal with the terminally ill has been gaining ground in our nation. Seventy percent of Americans are in favor of euthanasia, intentionally ending a person’s life to end their pain. Forty-six percent see no moral problem with physician-assisted suicide. At stake both in euthanasia (mercy-killing) and in physician-assisted suicide is the fundamental sanctity of human life and society’s commitment to love and care for those whom medicine cannot cure.
Modern medicine has made many advances in curing certain diseases, if diagnosed in time, in managing terminally ill patients and in providing palliative care for those nearing death in pain. According to Catholic moral teaching, it is permissible to refuse certain treatments at the end of life if they do not help and, in fact, cause pain. However, it is never morally acceptable to end life because it has become a burden. Ending the life of the patient to end the pain is not the answer.
Tragically, too many people in our society measure a person’s worth in terms of their productivity and usefulness. Life itself is valued when it is robust and healthy. But, when sickness comes and the person is no longer able to do anything, then it is, for some, the moment to end that life.
Pope Francis has spoken out frequently against the evil of deliberately ending the lives of the sick, the disabled and the elderly. To consider these individual as a drain on the resources of society is a symptom of a “throw-away culture.” When we no longer have use for something, we discard it. And, now even people! Pope Francis denounces this attitude toward the suffering, the helpless and the weak as a “false sense of compassion.” He does not hesitate to call euthanasia and physician assisted suicide “a sin against God” (Cf. Pope Francis, Speech to the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors. Nov. 15, 2014).
We are worth much more than what we can do. We have been loved into creation by God who calls us to life in this world and to eternal life in the next. As Pope Francis teaches, “In the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always ‘of quality.’ There is no human life that is more sacred than another — every human life is sacred — just as there is no human life qualitatively more significant than another…”(Ibid.).
Where faith in God is lost, the intrinsic value of human life is diminished and, ultimately, rejected. When individuals no longer accept God as the Author and Lord of life, then, it becomes rational for them to end life at will. The lethal consequences of this attitude are already in evidence.
In the 1970s, Dutch doctors were allowed to take the lives of patients to end their pain, if they followed certain guidelines. That was only the beginning. The grim significance of such an attitude has quickly become apparent. Dutch practice now includes ending the life of persons with disabilities, newborn infants who are handicapped and even healthy individuals who are depressed. Last year, the Dutch government introduced mobile death squads to go into the homes of the elderly to end their lives. Old age is now a reason to end someone’s life.
Once the principle of mercy-killing is accepted, more and more individuals become the victims of our “throw-away culture.” After a three-year study, the Royal Dutch Medical Association came to the conclusion that it should be permissible for doctors to euthanize healthy patients who are “suffering through living.” Who does not suffer sometime or other in life? Once admitted as good, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide become the death certificate of compassionate care for the weak and vulnerable. And, mercy-killing soon becomes killing without mercy.