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Suicide debate shows need to learn meaning of life and dignity after death

The current debate over physician-assisted suicide, disturbing enough on purely medical terms, is, on a deeper and more telling level, a debate about what we have become as a people and a culture.

It is emblematic of a cultural extreme in which individualism and individual autonomy is the good, outweighing any connection to community -- even family -- or any obligation to the larger society.

It represents the beauty of individual rights grown out of control, beyond all proportion to other equally compelling human rights and human instincts.

Within the language of the proponents of assisted suicide are the kernels of the new culture. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the leading proponent and practitioner of physician-assisted suicide, demeans the notion of fixed values and declares his belief that one should have the right to "do and say whatever you want to do and say at any time you want to do or say it as long as you do not harm or threaten anybody else's person or property." One can only presume here a notion of "harm" as truncated and myopic as his notion of personal freedom.

Derek Humphry, a euthanasia activist, explains, "The modern world has got to take account of the fact that religion no longer has the hold it once did." His point also requires accepting that the once revered notion of the "common good" and the ethical and moral presumptions upon which it rested have begun to unravel.

Flawed as the lived practice of "common good" may be, there is something deeply unsettling about abandoning the idea altogether.

Curiously, the groundwork for relinquishing such ideals is laid in areas seemingly distant from the battlegrounds of giant life-and-death questions. The seeds are sown amid the culture of greed, of bare-fisted capitalism, where respectability is bestowed on those who would objectify human beings for the sake of profit. And that culture has had a profound effect on the healing arts and how we view the whole continuum of life.

If our moral antennae can be numbed enough that we not only accept but also reward those who regularly discard human beings for the sake of the bottom line, then the ethic of the quick fix, of convenience, of what best suits ourselves, right now, runs rampant. And the ties of work, of family, of community eventually become as worthless as the homeless, the downsized and the terminally ill.

The ethic permeates the institutions that are supposed to heal. Doling out treatment has become a society-wide triage, weeding out haves from have-nots. Our medical industry is great at performing the spectacular fix, but many physicians know next to nothing about treating the end of life. Death is seen as something apart from human experience, a failure on the part of medicine.

It is only slowly, very slowly, through such programs as hospice, that we are beginning to educate ourselves about the dignity and place of dying in human experience.

As one hospice expert said in an interview, we don't need to give doctors any more control, we need to spend more time and money on enhancing end-of-life care. Palliative care is not cost free, nor is it, by definition, a cure. The church sees nothing wrong with increasing pain medication for someone terminally ill, even if the medication will hasten death, as long as the primary intent is relief of pain, not death.

The pro-euthanasia argument in the wider culture is about something else altogether, based as it is on an extreme, utilitarian view of the human person. The argument takes on a dangerous edge with the realization that death is the most efficient and cost-effective solution to a host of human ills.

The public debate and the clamor for lifting laws prohibiting assisted suicide will continue, even if the Supreme Court turns down the current request.

Eventually the debate will force the question for each of us: What is the Christian, specifically the Catholic Christian, to do?

One will not find an answer in much of the public religion that so loudly decries the results of greed -- such social ills as broken families, rampant addictions and lawlessness -- while ignoring the unbridled individualism that breeds the problem. Public religion preaches punishment as solution, a cure as wedded as is euthanasia to the quick-fix, convenience ethic.

Nor will reason be served by oversimplifying the real medical dilemmas and complexities that regularly are entwined with the drama and suffering at life's end. Medicine is as much at conflict with itself over the end of life -- over what should be protected and how -- as it is over the same issues at life's beginning.

So we are left with what? Our wits? The Word? A long tradition of reverence for life? Not a bad start. And all of those elements have come into play in the strong statements that Catholic bishops, physicians, ethicists and others have already made and will continue to make.

But a caution is inherent here. If the bishops are to continue to speak to the culture with authority, they must resist aligning themselves with narrow interests for the sake of political gain. If the long abortion debate has taught them anything, it should be clear that the bishops, with the best of intentions, can end up being shamelessly used by conservative political operatives who have little in common with the bishops on most elements of the Catholic social agenda.

This time, the bishops should play to their greatest strength -- the deeply human story of the community they shepherd. It is clear that the heart of the culture is unchanged by law or punishment. But our Catholic story, rich in its instinct for life, and the example of our community, are life-changing elements. What better example than Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who, in dying, held a nation rapt with his declaration that he greeted death as a friend?

There are others, less known, on the same journey. And there are the legions of Catholic caregivers who daily live with death and develop deep insights into the mysteries of that passage.

This is what the culture needs to hear, not bludgeoning lectures and threats, not political maneuvering and compromise.

Just our story, the gospel lived, again and again, deeply convinced, compassionate and human.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997