As I promised last week this is the first of a two part series about end of life issues against the background of the media interest stirred by the tragic situation of Terri Schiavo.
'Right to die' issue
In the first place let me address the issue of the so-called "right to die."
Death is biologically necessary when it comes. To speak of a right to that which is biologically inevitable is not a coherent use of the term "right." Furthermore all of our rights are correlative to certain obligations: that is, we have a right to whatever is necessary to fulfill our obligations as human beings. Rights are founded in obligations. If there were a right to die, that would mean that one has a right to prevent oneself from fulfilling any obligations.
Thus the right to die could not coherently be said to be founded in some obligation unless it were the obligation to prevent oneself from fulfilling any obligations. Again the use of the word right in the expression "right to die" is incoherent. The proportion of benefits/burdens of various medical treatments must be weighed in one who is already terminally ill and close to death. But the focus at that point is accepting a natural death - not exercising a right to die. More about this next week.
Our culture is very careless with the use of the term "right." Since animals have no obligations whatever, it simply would make no sense to speak of animal rights. Of course our moral obligation as human beings to respect plant and animal life means that we treat even plants and animals in a way which is humane, where we do not needlessly harm plant or animal life.
The fact that one can freely kill someone else or freely and deliberately commit suicide in effect does not give anyone a right to do so. The human body is the presence of a human person and never simply a thing to be disposed of as if it were someone's property. We can never forget the inspired words of St. Paul, "you have been purchased and at what a price (at the price of the blood of Christ). So glorify God with your body."
Quality of life often judged by others
The "quality of life" of people is often readily judged by others. It seems that many have decided that Terri Schiavo's life, for example, was not worth living.
While at times we need to judge whether certain forms of medical treatment are disproportionately burdensome, we are not called upon to judge whether someone's life itself is disproportionately burdensome so that it is no longer worth living. The mystery of human life is always in the hands of God from conception until natural death, and the natural moral law teaches us that no one ever has the authority, directly, to destroy innocent human life.
The onset of human suffering or disability in no way diminishes the value of a particular human life. If someone is terribly disabled and ill, but in fact not terminally ill, and in fact not close to death, no one has the authority to determine that a suffering or disabled human life has little or no value.
Must accept suffering as Christ did
As a matter of fact in the mystery of God's plan, the terrible suffering of the cross is the power out of which sprung the salvation of the world. While we do not look for ways to suffer in a masochistic sense, we are called to accept suffering as Christ did on the cross, as the ultimate proof of compassion and love.
The truth of suffering proves the truth of love as our Holy Father John Paul the Great has taught by his word and especially by his own behavior as death drew near. He still reverenced the gift of life that was within him though it was a fragile, weak, and suffering life.
His patient acceptance of the Lord's gift of life to him taught us everything we need to know about whether a suffering or disabled human life is worth living. Suffering joined with the suffering of Christ has incalculable human value. The Lord who sometimes gives the call to very great suffering also gives the grace to accept that call.
Next week I will address the issue of medical treatment for those people who are diagnosed as permanently unconscious, the medical treatment of those who are terminally ill and close to death, and the whole matter of living wills or the designation of durable power of attorney for health care decisions.
Thank you for reading this. May God continue to bless you with Easter joy, hope, and courage. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Praised be Jesus Christ!
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
Offices: Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, 702 S. High Point Road, Madison
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