Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
10 Jun 2011
Catholics face a special challenge in Australia today - to explain the unique dignity of human life. Our wonderful and positive Christian teachings outline:
The unique status of every human being explains why pro-lifers do not support mercy killing, sometimes called euthanasia.
We might shoot a dying dog, but no human, no matter how old or sick, is just an animal. It is wrong to kill innocent human life.
Times are changing in Australian society. Opinions are shifting. While the foundations for decency, tolerance, democracy and basic justice are generally firm, we do find considerable confusion and blind spots; for example, on abortion and human cloning. We are all influenced by the secular world view dominant in our media and culture.
Young people are encouraged to ignore faith, tradition and parents and decide for themselves. "Everything depends on the particular situation", and "morals need to move with the times" are constant refrains.
Many young Australians are moral relativists at least in matters of sexuality and questions of life and death. Therefore the challenge for Catholics, especially Catholic doctors and nurses, as well as parents, teachers and priests, is to throw light on this confusion.
Is the easiest way out the best way? Why not kill a dying person who asks to be put out of his misery? Where is courage and idealism or cowardice and pragmatism?
What are our duties towards the dying?
Our duties can be recognized by reason, arising from our human nature. We recognize moral truths, which cannot be avoided or denied; truths which are embodied in the natural law and confirmed by Christ himself and the Ten Commandments.
You shall not kill. You shall not destroy innocent human life. Every human being has a right to life.
What is Euthanasia?
Euthanasia means killing someone. People who support euthanasia do not usually describe it so bluntly. They prefer to emphasise the suffering euthanasia is intended to eliminate, and the freedom to "die with dignity". Whatever arguments are used, however, euthanasia means the killing of an innocent person, and usually one who is weak and vulnerable because of illness or disability.
Boiling the issue down like this is not being emotive, but simply a way of keeping the crucial issue clearly in sight. You shall not kill. You shall not destroy innocent human life.
Euthanasia broadly takes two forms. In the first a doctor, acting on a patient's request, gives an injection or medication with the intention of killing the patient. In the second, called physician-assisted suicide, a doctor prescribes a lethal medication for a patient to take when he chooses.
Many people who support euthanasia are thinking of practices which are simply part of good palliative care. It is not euthanasia to discontinue medical treatment or life-support when they have become useless or too much to bear. Catholic teaching and Australian law allow people to refuse burdensome or disproportionate medical treatment, even if death is likely to follow.
When effective pain management requires dosages of medication which may shorten the life of the patient, this is morally permissible because the intention is to alleviate pain, not to end life. Death is not willed, "only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable" (Catechism of the Catholic Church n.2279).
Euthanasia is often described as "dying with dignity". But nothing can take away our basic dignity as human beings; not even the humiliations and weakness caused by suffering and dying. We continue to exist in God's image, unlike the animals. Dying with dignity means accepting the human condition and the love and support of others, as we wait for death to come naturally. It is never easy.
Euthanasia actually undermines the human dignity of everyone who is sick, vulnerable, dependent or disadvantaged. They become disposable, burdens, too expensive to keep. It is no surprise that disabled people and Indigenous Australians, who have often suffered because of others denying their human dignity, strongly oppose euthanasia. A recent survey in the U.K. found seventy per cent of disabled people felt that legalisation of assisted suicide would create pressure for them to "end their lives prematurely." They recognise that euthanasia is not a right or a freedom. It is a threat.
The Christian Approach to Suffering and Death
I am not a medical doctor or a nurse, but as a priest I have cared for people who are dying and their families. The enormous distress caused by terminal illness, great pain and severe disability deeply affect everyone involved.
It is not unusual to feel powerless and defeated in the face of such suffering, although pain control is generally very good in Australia. Christian faith is a great help, not as a crutch or as a consoling illusion. Christians believe that the Son of God, who was also Mary's son, suffered with us and died for us. In this way Christ redeems us. Therefore it is no surprise that the cross (or crucifix) is the best known Christian symbol of redemption through suffering.
Christians fight against suffering as much as anyone and more than most. That is why more than half the palliative care in Australia is provided by Catholic institutions. But our faith also teaches that we can join our suffering to Christ's and offer it for a good purpose. Suffering need not be useless and can be transformed into spiritual growth. I often tell the tale of the bed-ridden grandmother who offered her years of suffering to God for her grandchildren. Think how Blessed John Paul II battled on despite his suffering.
In human history Christian care for the sick, especially those who had no one to care for them, was an innovation. The pagan attitude to suffering was to deny, avoid, and eliminate it. The old and the poor were left to fend for themselves, and disabled, sick or unwanted babies were left to die. We assume that caring for the sick, even when it is dangerous or unpleasant, is the natural thing to do. This is largely because Christianity has shaped our culture and consciences so deeply.
Christianity did this through the two commandments of love which Jesus joined together: to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (cf. Mt. 22:34-40). We owe this love to God because God is the creator and lord of life. We receive it from Him, and it is not ours to take from others. The fifth commandment makes it clear: "You Shall Not Kill" (Ex. 20:13).
Jesus revealed God to us as a loving father. He is kind and merciful to us, and we should be kind and merciful to others (Lk. 6:35-36). For this reason Jesus gave us the Golden Rule: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Mt. 7:12).
When it comes to death and suffering, Christians should follow three essential principles:
How Should We Help the Dying?
One of our duties to the dying is to ensure that pain is managed effectively, and that any underlying depression or mental illness is identified and treated. We also have to ensure that the dying are not abandoned. We can understand that those who are sick, in pain, depressed or anxious, approaching the end of life and left alone in a hospital, can be tempted to despair. But when pain, depression, and loneliness are responded to effectively the wish to die often recedes.
Visiting the dying, keeping them company, praying with them and for them is a powerful way of letting them know that they are not alone and not unloved. It can be hard work, especially for the young; but for those who are up to the challenge it a beautiful work of love and service.
Palliative care is a specialist field. As our population ages, communities and governments must provide more money for palliative care to ensure that the terminally ill receive the very best care, particularly in controlling pain and ensuring quality of life. If euthanasia is permitted hospitals, insurers and governments will be strongly tempted to see it as a cheaper option and reduce funding and cover for palliative care.
I hope and pray that many young Catholics, aware of the importance of defending human life, will become loving, competent pro-life doctors and nurses.
One important part of the Catholic task today, which we share with clear-headed humanists and humanitarians, is to explain that just as winter follows autumn legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia or mercy killing would lead to widespread involuntary euthanasia, with many, perhaps a majority of those euthanized being subject to the procedure without their consent and often against their will. This is because it is almost impossible to put legal safeguards in place to stop it becoming involuntary euthanasia.
Studies in The Netherlands have found that more than fifty per cent of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, with all the pressure this places on those who are sick; and twenty-five per cent of these doctors admit to ending patients' lives without their consent. 550 people were euthanized without an explicit request in 2005.
In Belgium, the law permits only doctors to perform mercy killings. Yet nurses perform euthanasia in twelve per cent of cases, and forty-five per cent of cases of unrequested assisted deaths.
If permission was ever given to Australian doctors and nurses to kill, those who "know better", who feel a patient is no longer worthy of life because of her suffering, or because he is too expensive to care for, will be empowered to take the law regularly into their own hands without the consent of the victim.
The law has a powerful moral influence and legalising euthanasia would destroy an important human rights protection. Very few countries have legalised euthanasia. We are already started on a slippery slope. Legislating to allow mercy killing would take us over a deep precipice.
The task of young Catholics is to explain to the wider society why it is wrong to kill the sick and the dying; why it is wrong to take innocent human life.
It can be hard to stand up for the truth. But the attacks on human life will become much worse if we don't.
Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney