Because of the lack of respect for life at its genesis, there is now a global push for legalisation of the premature disposal of life at its end: euthanasia, and assisted suicide (VAD laws).
Euthanasia simply means an earlier death than would come in the natural course of events. Its proponents would suggest that it is dying gently and with dignity. Euthanasia and assisted dying are countenanced and encouraged where it is believed that the quality of life of the individual has been greatly diminished and the suffering experienced is thought to be excessive. Like fetal destruction for so called “humane” reasons – that is, to alleviate future pain or even discomfit – so too with euthanasia/assisted dying the contention is that, by the early termination of a life considered no longer fruitful and useful, the euthanised one will be relieved of all that is considered unpleasant, including their very life.
In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope St John Paul II rightly called today’s society a society immersed in “a culture of death”. Rightly he put a name to something that is permeating and undermining humanity. The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has called it a “culture of waste”. Yet it seems that the anti-life mentality has become unstoppable and indeed embedded into society as normal.
Of course, a culture of death does not happen overnight but evolves silently and insidiously. Euthanasia has become possible because abortion on demand has been legalised and is now accepted as normal. If it has become possible to kill the weakest and most defenceless (in utero infant), how much easier is it to dispose of a life that has become burdensome (illness/age) and at times very costly.
Evangelium Vitae (66) summarises clearly why euthanasia and “assisted suicide” are intrinsically evil: “Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. …
“In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death. … To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if requested.”
The Church’s constant teaching on matters of life is that authority over these rests with God alone. God has a plan for each and every human who comes into being. He is aware of the individual’s existence long before it is brought forth and indeed has a relationship with that individual which extends far into the individual’s life here on Earth. Euthanasia and assisted suicide all attempt to wrest from God his very authority.
That we are even in the position to consider the demands to euthanise or assist a person prematurely to take their own life is a great tragedy.
Palliative care is so much more humane. But I think that we need to offer a different understanding of palliative care in order to ensure that it actually enters into people’s consciousness. We could begin with palliative-care language.
The term “palliative care”, like the word “fetus”, evokes no image. It gives no sense of what it actually means. Patients and family are given only the cloudiest understanding. It cannot compete with the clear image that “euthanasia” offers: that it will end the suffering that they see with their own eyes of a loved one.
Euthanasia seems compassionate because it means the end of the suffering of the patient; it also means the end of the suffering of those who have stood and watched the suffering. Intentionally prepared death seems so much cleaner and quicker.
However, there is a much better way: the way of “holding the hand” of the suffering one. This is a special, deep, unique time of intimacy as never experienced before.
This is a very real time of journeying together with the loved one. No matter how long it may be from diagnosis to end moment, it is a time of real love because the point at which the dying person will leave for a different land and never be seen again is anticipated. Only the time of the suffering and caring is left to prepare both the ailing one and the family, because the final leg of this journey can only be taken alone.
There comes a time when no one can help to change the pathway, but helping to prepare the pathway so that the journey may be easier should be the greatest honour that one person can give to another. Especially one who has entered into the life of the other and shared that life with them.
To walk with the suffering one, to whisper words of comfort and love, to hold that frail or very sick hand, to hold gently that frail body and then to finally release that hand and body to go, is what palliative care is all about.
To help that frail one to be prepared for the lone part of the journey is the task of palliative care. To speak of eternal matters is the help of palliative care.
My own experience of death with its many unanswered questions meant that I was not able to help to prepare my much loved son to make that last part of the journey and was only able to stand by his coffin as it slowly went down and through the tears that fell like raindrops, the stillness, loneliness for him, remember a little boy whose hand I had held for many years.
I remembered a life at times at odds with the self. A life not fully lived because of the choice to leave too early. A time I could not hold his hand or prepare him for that last part of the journey. That is what euthanasia and suicide is. A life leaving far too early. Without preparation, without whispers, without holding of hand.
And while in my memory and heart there will always remain a beautiful little boy who loved and was loved, the thought remains that he refused the comfort and help that was possible for him; just as assisted suicide and euthanasia demand.
Because of the nature of his death, I was not able to say the things we say in those moments. The assurance that we will meet again. The assurance that he will remain embedded in memory and heart. The assurance that his guardian angel will walk that last part of his pilgrimage with him. None of these things was possible because the nature of his death was choice and no preparation for the final mile was possible.
Those who call for premature death reject this time of deep soul-to-soul speak. They refuse to see the fears of the patient: fear of more pain, fear of being a burden, fear of what might come. Because of this refusal, no wonder an early end seems preferable.
Palliative care needs to be mentioned in all the literature, including that available at surgeries, hospitals and hospices, and be spoken of in all talks. It needs to be understood especially by those who are called to make decisions that leave doubts: “Did I do the right thing?”
Palliative care needs to be explained (within the pain environment) in beautiful language of a journey to a beautiful place and of a gentle parting, not a violent separation. Palliative care needs to have counsellors who really believe in a beautiful life leading to a peace-filled death. Palliative care needs to be able to help the patient remember life and not to leave life until absolutely necessary.
Palliative care needs advocates who use the same language clearly, especially when confronted by negative media and media personalities whose suffering has been much and who believe that their suffering would have been less had they been able to euthanise a loved one.
This is a lie by the father of lies who aims at snatching life from the author of life. This is the same kind of lie that says that abortion does not mean the death of a child.
Caring for those on their final journey is a charism of deep love because the suffering is shared both by the patient and by those who love the patient. Just as love creates a life, so holding that life to its final end is a time of grace.
Anne Lastman is a clinical counsellor and is the founder of Victims of Abortion Trauma Counselling and Info Services.