Dear Sister Mary Rose,

Thank you for presenting the Church’s view on euthanasia in our Bioethics class. You did a great job of presenting the Catholic view in a wholesome dialogue, which was far more engaging than the document we were given. After going to World Youth Day in Madrid with you and the group a couple of summers ago, it was good to see you again after so long! I go to Sacred Heart now, at 7am every Sunday, and usually go to adoration on the first Friday of each month (though my school schedule has disrupted that practice as of late). I was raised Catholic, and my family on both sides are staunch Catholics as far back as we can trace. I identify as a Catholic, though I don’t necessarily agree with each stance that the Church has. Despite my difference on several issues, I consider myself “culturally Catholic”. I am deeply affected by its philosophies and symbolism, and it has made significant marks on me. It has made the man (read as wannabe-man child who's still clueless on what life's throwing at him) I am for today.

Defining the official Catholic position would be much easier if I had the Youcat from World Youth Day on me, but unfortunately my family packed all our books into a storage facility so I have to use memory and the interwebs. The Church defends the right to life at all stages and as such does not support the premature death of anyone. In the “Declaration on Euthanasia”, it says that “No one can make an attempt on the life of an innocent person without opposing God’s love for that person…. committing a crime of the utmost gravity”. They do this because in euthanasia they see the devaluation of suffering and the emphasis on pleasure alone in society, rather than all the ups and downs inevitable in life. Hidden in the legalization of euthanasia, according to dogma, is the hedonism within us all clamoring for our souls and minds. The Declaration goes on, saying, “Today it is very important to protect… against a technological attitude that threatens to become abuse”. All reason, sense, and understanding would be potentially trampled underfoot by our thirst for pleasure in an ironic bastardization of Martin Luther’s statement on faith.
The Catholic Church, while refusing to allow active euthanasia, does recognize the right of an individual to refuse “extraordinary treatment”, which allows for flexibility but also leaves room for doubt. It forgives poorer nations who have little to no immediate access to expensive machinery and medical techniques, but is too vague. How much is “extraordinary”? The Declaration on Euthanasia defines it as treatments “still in the experimental stage”, and ones that are more burdensome than helpful. This however, will undoubtedly change as the field of medicine progresses and seems only a temporary answer to a fluid situation. Also permissible to the Church is the act of passive euthanasia (example- pulling the feeding tube from a brain dead person).
Alison Davis, a person born with spina bifida, is one of many advocates of the right to life movement. She argues that her condition is not an indicator that she has “no worthwhile quality of life”. She employs the oft-used “slippery slope” argument that many of those opposed to euthanasia use, citing her own life in which she has accomplished quite a bit as proof that one can never predict whether a life is worth living or not, and that we should protect all life because any intrusions on this particular subject is seen as a threat to the handicapped. She is primarily concerned with the concept of “non-personhood” and its potential to expand in definition. This is a reality, but perhaps one that is overemphasized in that not enough people will agree that all handicaps are “non-persons”. Though her life was in most aspects good, it should be noted because the main reason is because her parents kept her despite being encouraged to leave her in the hospital, whereas forcing an unwilling parent to keep an unwanted handicapped child would undoubtedly bring only suffering upon the handicapped child.

Chris Hill was a lawyer who suffered an accident while hang gliding which left him paraplegic. He argues that the handicapped should be allowed to decide whether they should die or not. He lived an active life full of pleasure and happiness, but was tragically paralyzed by his accident. He describes the indignity of bodily functions that had to be “performed manually” and ulcers that wreaked havoc on his now useless body. “The list of horrors was endless, and I haven’t even mentioned some of the worst ones”, he states. Eventually he opted out and decided taking his own life was better after attempting to live life as a paraplegic. His case, while extreme, stresses the plight of those put under extreme circumstances. There was little to no hope his situation would improve, and he had been through enough suffering as it stood. This highlights an important issue with keeping euthanasia illegal- the desire of a desperate person to end their own life. People who want to die will find a way to do so, legalities aside. They will harm themselves or even worse, involve their own family members and friends (perhaps even a Kevorkian). By doing so, they risk hurting the people they care for the most even more than if they had a legal recourse.

Another argument for euthanasia is the healthcare system in the Netherlands. The Dutch have long been an extremely liberal nation. Being one of the first major nations to become a republic in the world after overthrowing their local Spanish Hapsburg magistrates, they have had a storied tradition of pushing the limits. It is no surprise then that they consider euthanasia a basic element of healthcare, and have doctors who administer drugs directly to the patient in a world where taking patients off of a feeding tube is considered radical. This system has proven efficient according to Dutch doctor Pieter Admiraal. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find large scale abuse or any other sort of negative results that critics would expect. To approve the lethal injection, there first must be agreement by “a team consisting of two doctors, a nurse, and one of the hospital’s spiritual caregivers – the Roman Catholic chaplain, the Protestant chaplain, or the Humanist counselor”. While the cynic in me sees the discrepancies with this system (a Catholic chaplain in Holland is bound to be extremely liberal compared to one in Ireland, and if they do not agree then it would be too easy to simply switch to the Humanist counselor.. it’s almost as if the doctor would be more likely to reject the patient’s wishes), it is a working system. People with little hope for relief can end their misery quickly. They have established a system of checks and balances to ensure that the person in question meets the right criteria and is in the right state of mind. The true critique of euthanasia, however, does not lurk in the halls of the hospital but rather in the hearts of the average citizen. So far, studies have found that the “slippery slope” effect has not taken place, though only time can tell whether this is true or not for critics.

I believe that ultimately people have the right to decide what to do with their own lives. As the Bible expresses, we are given free will, and this free will is what makes us human. One can never stop all murders from happening and the same can be said about theft and other forms of deceit. As such we will always two polarized sides of any topic, especially the controversial ones. Either way, abuses of power or the denial of a malingering person’s wish is bound to occur. In the terms of euthanasia, I believe that it is preferable to have euthanasia available for those that want it; though they should be well aware of every alternative (you brought up severing of nerves, chemotherapy, or whatever our geniuses are cooking up in research laboratories these days). My rationale lies in an old French proverb- “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. People are still confronted with mortality, and end up as dust back into the dust from whence they came. Think of how far we have come as a species. Even in the 19th century the average person was only expected to live about 31 years. Today, the average life expectancy rate is 67.2 years, even including the horrors of global conflicts and starvation. We have more than doubled our life expectancy as a species, and we are continuing to research and find out ways to extend it even longer. We draw out our lives far more than we were originally designed to, in a biological and perhaps in a philosophical-theological sense as well. Perhaps for some, the time has come to stop fighting and make peace with themselves or their God/Gods.

However, the Catholic stance makes a good point that it only places importance on our own pleasure. I’m not saying we need to suffer all the time, but that bad events have a way of shaping our character in ways that good ones cannot. It should only be when we have reached the absolute breaking point that we should even consider allowing another way out (those with terminal illness or imminent mental/physical incapacitation). If a patient has something curable but refuses treatment in order to die for whatever personal motivation (debts, mental illness, etc.), that is wholly unreasonable. But if it an untreatable disease like Alzheimer’s or ALS that will deteriorate a person completely and the only other option is to reduce the effects, then it is understandable that one contemplates euthanasia. Asphyxiating in a body that is atrophied is not pleasant to think about, nor is losing memory of everything you used to treasure and hold dear. If it only hastens the inevitable so that someone can enjoy their last moments rather than living in a personal hell where they have no control over their own body, then that is their choice. In Million Dollar Baby, the woman hated her situation and desperately wanted to die so Clint Eastwood’s character gave her a lethal injection. She gave it her best shot to try and live with a broken neck (or whatever she had), but eventually she felt that she didn’t want to live with ulcers and the inability to move anything below her neck. Though there were ways to prevent that from happening her decision is understandable; although I’m not sure I’d do the same in her situation.

Once someone becomes a vegetable but has not filled out an advanced directive, it should fall to the closest person to them (spouse and then family, in that order) to choose life or death. If nobody is around to decide, then the person should be taken care of as the hospital sees fit, which usually would mean they are allowed to die (hopefully at least their organs are used to help others). It would be more humane to end their life via active euthanasia than passive, as starving somebody to death is rather barbaric compared to sticking a needle in them and allowing them to pass into eternal sleep. Passive euthanasia and active euthanasia are not so different as people would make them out to be, as they each end in the death of a human being. The only difference is the amount of suffering involved in the process.

In conclusion, I believe people should have the option of euthanasia if death or total incapacitation is imminent. However, this is a subject that requires a great deal of care. Slow steps are essential in order to limit abuses and reaction to change that is too sudden. There absolutely must be a careful system of checks and balances such as the Dutch use if euthanasia is to be legalized. Doctors need to be given the right of refusing to perform euthanasia, and denying it as well to patients who are not in the right circumstances. Some people will want to die, and it is wrong to deny them if they are within certain boundaries. As long as they are well informed and aware of other alternatives, euthanasia should be permissible as long as it limited to the extreme situations of terminal illness or total mental/physical incapacitation.
Karl Z