Dear Sister Mary Rose,

I would like to begin by taking the time to thank you for coming into Mr. Geib’s Bioethics class to present to us the official Catholic position on euthanasia. I was the boy wearing the dress. While there was a perfectly logical explanation as to why I was wearing a dress on this particular day, it would require an explanation of ridiculous length. Suffice to say, I am not a cross dresser.

I would like to commend you on your excellent presentation of the Catholic position on euthanasia. We have had it presented to us by Mr. Geib, but I think it carries greater weight when presented by a Catholic nun. As you are probably aware, the Catholic position is in complete opposition to the practice of active euthanasia under any circumstances, with a tentative tolerance for passive euthanasia in certain circumstances. As your own Catholic Declaration on Euthanasia states, “Intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is therefore equally as wrong as murder.” This statement logically would extend to asking someone to help one commit suicide, and covers any hypothetical situation in which one might attempt to justify suicide by stating that it is universally wrong. This means that, according to Catholicism, it is wrong to commit suicide even in the case of diseases such as paraplegia, Alzheimer’s, or terminal bone cancer afflicting the patient with great suffering. Basically, it says there is no justification for “mercy killings” or acts of euthanasia.

The Catholic Church argues that God, being the creator of the universe, is the only one who is allowed to end the life of an innocent human being, stating furthermore that anyone who does so is stepping in and ignoring God’s love for the person, as well as violating natural laws. They say that the right thing to do in the situation of someone approaching the end of their life is to show them love and support in their final days, allowing for the use of morphine and other such anesthetics for the purpose of alleviating pain and allowing the person to die comfortably. Additionally, they argue that to refuse any “reasonable” medical treatment that is available to one is unacceptable, and that in countries like the United States one is obliged to accept such options as a respirator or a feeding tube. This policy extends to people such as quadriplegics and people in a permanent vegetative state, arguing that the lives of people the church calls “disabled” should be preserved in all cases.
There are many who would agree with your Church’s position, such as a disabled woman and disability activist by the name of Allison Davis. Mrs. Davis was born with spina bifida, and despite her disability she has managed to earn a degree in sociology, travel extensively, and maintain a successful marriage with a man who is able of body. Mrs. Davis believes that disabled persons such as her can fully enjoy a decent quality of life with our modern medical care, and that nobody has the right to decide if a severely disabled infant can have a good life and should be kept alive, or if they will have a painful life and its best to allow them to pass away. Mrs. Davis also holds that it is a slippery slope if we allow doctors to decide whose life is worth living, one which might lead to the euthanizing of disabled person. Obviously, she is opposed to this, asking, “Who can say I have ‘no worthwhile quality of life’?”

Conversely, there are also many people who disagree with your Church’s position, such as the Australian man Chris Hill. Mr. Hill was a very adventurous young man, who enjoyed travelling the world, meeting beautiful women, and hang gliding. Unfortunately, Mr. Hill was paralyzed in a tragic hang gliding accident, and lost all motor function from his chest to his feet. Mr. Hill was miserable as he was bound to a wheelchair, graphically describing the gruesome process of how he would remove his own excrement without the muscles to do it naturally. Chris Hill hated his life after the accident, saying, “The mere sight of someone standing up, a child skipping, a bicyclist’s flexing leg muscles, were enough to reduce me to tears.” Chris Hill was surrounded by a caring girlfriend and loving family, but eventually he still decided to take his own life, with the words, “My life was just a miserable existence, an awful parody of normalcy.”

There are many who would agree with Mr. Hill’s decision, and some who have done the same, but none are as well-known as the Dutch clinics. As you know, physician assisted suicide has been legalized in the Dutch countries for terminally ill persons who are approaching their final days, or find themselves permanently suffering without hope of recovery. Now, the Dutch do not take this option lightly, and in places such as the Delft hospital were this choice is available they require a multi-doctor team as well as a religious representative to come to a decision on whether or not the person us eligible for the assisted suicide option. Now, simply because they have this option doesn’t mean they peddle it to the dying; they also have a great emphasis on palliative care and personal decision. For the dying and the crippled worldwide, Dignitas, a suicide clinic in the Netherlands which actually accepts foreigners who have passed their tests, has become a last hope to end their pain, and many people have flocked to this place to find rest. The Dutch attitude toward the patient’s right to die is, as Peter Admiraal states, “To fail to practice voluntary euthanasia under some circumstances is to fail the patient.”

Personally, I am in greater agreement with the second group. I believe in God, but I believe that life is not a gift, it’s a hardship one is supposed to endure, and even if it was a gift, I believe that one always has the right to not accept a gift given to them. Life is hard, it is full of pain and suffering, and sometimes it feels like it will never end. I believe that everyone, terminally ill or not, has the right to end their own life. Now, I am not arguing that suicide is morally correct, but I believe that everyone has the right to commit it. Yes, it will hurt those around you emotionally, but you are not forced to put their wishes ahead of yours. It is your life. I know this goes against everything you believe, but I still think that it is true. Sometimes, despair overcomes one who thinks that life is not worth living and they decide to end it, but I doubt that God is saying “How dare you reject my gift of life!” I would hope God would put a hand on the shoulder and forgive someone who was so sad and alone that they couldn’t bear it, and I would also hope he would offer the same comfort to someone who was overwhelmed by the pain that filled their mid and asked their doctor to end their suffering a day in advance.

In the Japanese ritual of seppuku, a samurai would open their stomach with their own blade, an incredibly agonizing task. Beside them stood their closest friend and he also carried a sword. It was his job to remove the head of his friend after he had opened his stomach, allowing him a swifter and less agonizing death than one caused by opening the stomach and letting one’s blood and intestines spill out. I am aware that you are opposed to suicide, but there is actually great mercy in this tradition. The opening of the stomach was the way a disgraced samurai could regain some of his family’s honor, by suffering and giving his life. The friend would support him as he bore his burden, and when he had done as much as he could, the friend ended his suffering, as if to say “You have done your part, now rest.” I believe that the doctor has a similar role to that of the friend, to come in when they are needed and give peace to those who have already borne their burden. For a Christian, the life they led, not their life’s end, was their testament on the behalf of God, and I believe God would allow them to have peace before their organs spilled out. In my opinion, life is often something that is suffered, like the opening of one’s stomach,

Also, I find the notion that all suffering people need is a little love to be completely ridiculous. I recently went to visit my great-grandfather, who is ninety nine years old and deceased. For the whole time I was there, he laid in bed, unable to move, unable to eat, unable to open his eyes, unable to breathe on his own for extended periods of time. He could barely speak, and the only sentence he stated for the entire time I was there was “I want to die.” He was surrounded by family members, all of whom love him dearly and never stop telling him so, but still his only words were “I want to die.” He meant it too. He is unable to swallow, so they tried to put a feeding tube down his nose, but he mustered all the strength he had and pulled it out. Now, maybe the Catholic Church is right and we just don’t love him enough to make him happy as he’s dying, but I highly doubt that that is the issue. No amount of love can alleviate the pain of having one’s body fail, and my grandpa needs release not reassurance.

In the case of individuals who have entered a permanent vegetative state, I believe that there is no crime in taking them off of life support, and that it is the more dignified thing to do. People such as Terri Schiavo, whose brains have been sadly reduced to mostly liquid, aren’t even truly alive anymore. I heard you compare Terri Schiavo to a mentally disabled person, and after seeing the video of her in the hospital, I can assure you that this comparison is inaccurate. My mother worked for most of my life as a Qualified Mental Retardation Professional at a group home for disabled children. I had the good fortune to meet many of the children she worked with, and there was no doubt in my mind that they were alive. When I spoke or moved or brushed against one of the children they would show a reaction, not a reflex, but a reaction. It is true that they all had an IQ score under eighty five due to tragic disabilities, but they were clearly people who were not vegetative. Terri Schiavo died on February 25, 1990, and all that remained in the following years was her body which continued to operate due to the motor systems, similar to how a corpse can twitch after the person has died. Keeping her lifeless body animate was wrong on so many levels, and I doubt that she would wish for that.

Finally, I disagree with this extraordinary means business. You said that not taking a respirator when it’s available to you is unacceptable. Personally, I will not live hooked up to a machine like that; I will stop breathing when my lungs stop working, and that is not suicide. Refusing medical treatment in any circumstance is simply letting nature take its course, and there is nothing wrong with that. I believe the crime comes in forcing someone to suffer, physically or emotionally, when they have other options.

It is said that life is the most precious thing we have, but I believe that is untrue. Happiness and dignity are the two most precious things we have, and without either of them life is meaningless.