Some people argue that those who are enduring “unbearable suffering” should have a “right to die” when and how they choose. Dr Philip Nitschke, an Australian doctor and one of the euthanasia movements more controversial leaders, has developed a number of methods in order to “help” people end their lives including an “Exit Bag,” a “Peaceful Pill,” a “Suicide Machine,” and a “Death Ship.” He travels the world giving lectures and advice to others on how they can best end their lives. While he claims he merely gives people information about how to die, he also admits that he has been intimately associated with at least 20 deaths.
Is Philip Nitschke right? Should we assist the sick and dying to end their lives through euthanasia or assisted suicide? Would this allow them to “die with “dignity” or are there more compassionate responses to the problem of pain and loss of autonomy? Should we just “put people out of their misery”? What does that say about human dignity?
Our value as human beings does not depend our sickness or health, our wealth or our poverty, our social status or our lack of it but simply because we exist. Catholics believe that we do have a certain dignity simply by being human. We have been created by God out of love and are destined for eternity. Every human life has a purpose. This means that what ever our “quality of life” we can never lose our dignity although we can act in way that implies “my life is of no value” or your “life is of no value.” By willing our death or someone else’s, we are saying just this.
Pope John Paul II reminded us in Evangelium Vitae (#65-66) that euthanasia and suicide are gravely wrong and are tragic acts of despair. True compassion means to suffer with, to bear with and to be with the suffering person. It does not mean we should kill the person whose suffering we find hard to bear, or who finds their own suffering hard to bear. Compassion then helps people to “die with dignity” by helping them to live through the final phase of their lives. It also means not abandoning them but helping them to find the support, companionship, love and care that they need to meet their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. It also means allowing others to care for us, as we have cared for them. There is no indignity in being dependent on others, and accepting their acts of service.
Today many people fear being “kept alive” by machines. Catholic teaching does not require us to go to extremes to preserve life but rather to “choose life” and accept death when it comes naturally. It allows us to refuse treatment if that treatment is no longer working or has become overly burdensome. But this is a very different to saying my life is futile or of no value.
Catholics are called to offer the world a new counter-cultural way of looking at human life and death. We are called to find new meaning in suffering and caring in order to build the bonds of community and to discover the dignity and value in every human life.
Archbishop Hart, has released a Statement on Euthanasia and he can be viewed talking on the issue here.
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