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Catholicism and Death with Dignity
Posted by Guest Blogger on August 9, 2011
No one gets out of this world alive. That's a fact. And fear of dying is death's side effect.
Many of us have watched loved ones suffer for years. My stepfather, for example, spent 10 years as an invalid with emphysema. He lost one leg from lack of circulation. He suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Every breath was torture. Ten years of suffering! Did he want to die? You bet. When the doctor asked him if there was anything he wanted, he said, "My shotgun." He didn't get it.
Death with Dignity takes away the fear. It doesn't mean we're going to rush to the grave. It means we can face the future knowing we never have to be imprisoned by our bodies.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops would have us remain the slaves of pain. On June 16, 2011, the bishops approved a statement condemning physician-assisted death. Their reasons:
- People who take their lives often suffer from mental illness
- Family or physicians can influence the patient's choice to die
- A choice to take one's life is a choice to eliminate all choices
- Society as a whole will suffer because it will lose respect for other rights and freedoms and lead us down the "slippery slope" toward taking the lives of people with non-terminal conditions.
The bishops are entitled to make their rules. That's their job. But do modern Catholics obey? No.
I'm a Catholic, and I observe people in the pew are making their own decisions. The most obvious example is the wholesale ignoring of restrictions on artificial birth control. Couples come to church with their 2.3 children, instead of the 6, 7 and 8 children in former times, and it's not because they're taking their temperatures every day. It's because they're on the Pill, using condoms or "getting fixed."
Catholic women have abortions at about the same rate as the rest of the population. According to research presented by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Protestant women in the US obtain 37% of all abortions; Catholic women account for 31%. Jewish women, who face no stigma on abortion, account for only 1.3%.
The statistics on Jewish women and abortion adds some proof that providing options without stigma does not take people down "the slippery slope," in the bishops' 4th objection. Openness on abortion seems to lower their use of abortion clinics.
The Death With Dignity Law was passed in Oregon in 1994 and implemented in 1998. Since then, according to Death with Dignity statistics, 525 people have died after ingesting the prescribed medication. That's 525 people over 13 years. In 2010 alone, 23,400 people over 65 died in Oregon. There is no "slippery slope" to the cemeteries in that state!
Rebuttal to the bishops' Objection 1: People with mental illness sometimes commit suicide. It doesn't follow that people who are terminally ill have mental illness. They have physical illness and physical suffering. The depression they may suffer is secondary and doesn't preclude them from making competent end-of-life care decisions. If it appears clinical depression or another mental illness is clouding their judgment, they must be referred for psychological evaluation to determine mental competency and can't continue the process until they've been determined to be capable to make their own medical decisions.
Objection 2: Of course, family and physicians will influence patients. Doctors will give patients the facts — including other end-of-life options — and provide the necessary medications. Family members will most often urge ailing relatives not to leave them. In the end, the decision to die still should be the patient's alone.
Objection 3: This is straight out of Catholic theology, which says suicide is the gravest of all sins because it's the one sin that cannot be confessed. But what is there to confess with a comfortable death? Suffering already eliminates meaningful choices.
The idea that suffering patients can use this time to "devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves" is ridiculous. Anyone who's had the flu knows physical illness takes away the ability to think, talk, relate to anyone, even pray. Maybe the saints could do it, but we're just ordinary people trying to do the best we can in life — and death. If you doubt this, visit a nursing home and try to find a patient who's able to be devout and peaceful. You'll be lucky to find one.
We're not going to end the aging process. All the anti-oxidants, exercise programs, and innovative drugs in the world will not prevent us from growing old and infirm. What we can end is our lack of control over suffering. We need control over our own death to eliminate our fear of dying.
To the Catholic bishops, I say this: God gives us the ability to use medical and nutritional technology to keep or restore health to His gift of life. God also gives us the ability to know when we can nurture life no longer. It's a decision between God, the patient and the doctor.
It's an invasion of privacy that we even have to vote on it.
Defend dignity. Take action.
You are the key to ensuring well-crafted Death with Dignity laws for all Americans. With your financial and volunteer help, the Death with Dignity National Center, a 501(c)(3), non-partisan, non-profit organization, has been the leading advocate in the death with dignity movement. Member contributions helped us pass a new Death with Dignity law in Washington, defend the Oregon law, and provide education and outreach programs for the vitality of the death with dignity movement.