What about living with dignity? Some thoughts on euthanasia

Teacher, musician, writer and former editor of Dialogue journal, Sr Beverly Zimmerman, is living the most challenging stage of her life. Here she reflects on the oft-debated issue of euthanasia.

What about living with dignity? Some thoughts on euthanasia

For me, discussing euthanasia is both easy and difficult.


It is easy because I have multiple sclerosis. I understand the issues raised by the advocates of euthanasia.


It is difficult because I am forced to face my own reality.


I understand that someone suffering a terminal illness will arrive at a point when they will say, "Enough is enough! No more pain, no more indignity, it is time to die. Will someone please help me?"


I reject euthanasia just as I reject suicide. 


Why? Because my deep Catholic faith is embedded in life, not death.


And most importantly, because I have an innate sense of wanting to survive. Whenever my life was at its worst or darkest, I have believed that I would survive. I hope.


The advocates of euthanasia don't believe in survival.


In 2010-2011 the Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation Bill was presented and debated in the Federal and most state and territory governments.  It is more than likely that the euthanasia debate will continue in 2012.


The Bill recognised an individual's right to die with dignity at a time of his or her choosing and with the assistance of medically qualified persons.


But what does dying with dignity really mean?

I agree with Ruth Limkin, pastor, journalist and winner of the Margaret Dooley Young Writers Award 2008, who wrote in her winning essay, "Living with Dignity", that "the redefining of dignity, and the concept that some of the processes of dying are inherently undignified, has, in effect, passed judgement, not upon the death of some, but upon the life of many. The value judgements behind 'dying with dignity' are actually highly offensive to those with physical or mental disabilities, and who have to live each day with the symptoms that euthanasia advocates deem 'undignified'."

Limkin also questions one's ability to choose the time of one's death. She explains, "The decision to end your life is rarely made apart from factors that place immense pressure on the individual…an often unspoken, yet powerful, influence in decisions relating to euthanasia is fear. Whether it is fear of pain, fear of losing physical or mental control, or fear of being a 'burden' to family, this fear is powerfully persuasive. And fear makes you vulnerable."

Fear of pain and fear of becoming a burden are very real for me.  But I am assured that pain relief is available and those close to me insist that I am not a burden, that I am not a waste of space and that I am still me.

The Catholic Church's position on euthanasia is in strong contrast to the proposed legislation.


The crux of the Church's opposition to euthanasia is that the 'good' of the sanctity of human life - that life which God has bestowed on each one of us - can never be sacrificed for the sake of the 'good' of self determination(Catholic Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980).


Using Catholic teaching, scripture and tradition, the Church argues against euthanasia.


The decision to request that one's life be ended by means of active intervention by another person rests on a misconception that a human life cannot be worth living.


Although advances in medical technology allow others to assist people to end their lives, relatively painlessly, this does not make that judgement morally right.  On the contrary, it is a clear violation of a principle which all civilized societies have recognised and defended throughout human history.


From the point of view of Christian teaching, euthanasia contravenes God's commandment that "Thou shalt not kill."


The Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry of healing leave us in no doubt that he respected human life when many of his generation did not. One only needs to recall his healing of the ten lepers and of the blind man by the Pool of Siloam, whom others had bypassed for many years.


Moreover, Christians have been at the forefront of caring for the sick and dying for centuries. Inspiring that service has been a reverence for human life and a love for the God who has created that life and who has sovereignty over it.


The Catholic Church is also clear that one can forego so-called medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient.  When death is imminent, one can in conscience refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a burdensome prolongation of life(Evangelium Vitaen 65).


The Catholic Church is incontrovertibly committed to upholding the sanctity of human life.


I agree with Ruth Limkin that money spent on euthanasia campaigns would be better spent on "medical funding and training for effective pain management and palliative care….[this] is essential if society wishes to offer a comprehensive and compassionate response to suffering. However, Australia also needs courageous voices that advocate, truly, for the terminally ill. Often the test of courage is not to stay silent but to speak."


I make no judgement on those who choose euthanasia. While I might have a sense of what they are going through, I can't really know what they are enduring. For my part, I choose to live, with the love and support of family and friends, specialist care and the knowledge that pain relief is readily available.


While waiting I hope to make some contribution to the world and the lives of people around me. 


To read the Catholic Church's Declaration on Euthanasia, please visit www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html

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