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How to die in good faith.

MAYBE WE SHOULD BE GRATEFUL TO DR. Kevorkian after all. But if gratitude is due him, it is owing to his having brought a terribly important and terribly difficult problem that we are often reluctant to discuss to the forefront. Not that such gratitude would signal approval of the Michigan physician's practice of "assisted suicide." However attractive Kevorkian's program may sometimes seem in humane terms when his patients are suffering from terrible, terminal illness, its immorality, for Catholics at least, is certain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite blunt on this subject: "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable."

The catechism spells out this teaching by saying that "an error in judgment into which one can fall in good faith" that "causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his[!] Creator" (italics added).

However, as a wise commentator, James O'Gara (who once edited this magazine and now writes occasionally in the Long Island Catholic), recently pointied out:

'Withholding or withdrawing useless or unduly burdensome treatment is not a question of euthanasia, murder, suicide, assisted suicide, or anything of the sort. The physical cause of death is ultimately the underlying pathology that first required medical treatment. No one is responsible for the death in such a case since the fatal underlying problem is what causes death" (italics added).

In his typically understated manner, O'Gara goes on to say: "It would be helpful in my view, if the Catholic position, which is a middle-of-the-road position, were more clearly understood."

And that may be the rub when it comes to the understanding of Catholics. On the one hand, some of us because we are prolife imagine that this means we have to insist on keeping a person alive when there is no hope for recovery." Those who so believe are often trapped in a situation of almost intolerable anguish and grief. Alternatively, other Catholics in such a situation are sympathetic to the Kevorkian solution and are unwilling to distinguish between allowing death to happen as painlessly as possible or directly causing death.

As far back as the 1940s, Pope Pius XII startled some of his conservative associates when he taught that in cases of irreversible and terminal illness, extraordinary means" need not be taken to keep the person alive. Since then, however, advances in medical science have caused the notion of extraordinary means to expand geometrically and complicated the necessary decision-making. Most complicating of all, of course, is that the person most concerned, the person approaching death, may be comatose or incapable of choices.

The recent attention being given to "living wills" then is of the utmost importance. These instruments, which should be made when a person is well or, at least, not in danger of death, spell out the maker's wishes should he or she be confronted with the need to choose. What means, ordinary or extraordinary, should be used to treat the person's illness? Without such a living will, the patient's family or friends are left without guidance in the life-or-death matter, and, more seriously, the doctors and hospitals involved are left to make weighty decisions that might not coincide with the dying person's desires.

The Catholic Health Association has distributed a living will that it calls "Christian Affirmation of Life." It states: "Christians believe that in death life is transformed by the power of Christ's death and the Resurrection into eternal life. Because of this belief it is not always necessary to use every possible means to resist death." It goes on to express the patient's wish "that my pain be alleviated if it becomes unbearable, even if this results in shortening my life."

(It is to be hoped that the days when doctors refused to use pain-relieving, narcotic drugs for fear of "addicting" dying patients are over or will soon be.)

The Catholic Health Association is no longer distributing this document. Not because the Catholic position has changed--not at all--but because the particular form of that document was not legally adequate as a living will. In view of this fact, it is recommended that people who do not wish to be kept alive when there is no chance of recovery arrange durable powers of attorney.

Both the Vatican and the National Conference of American Catholic Bishops have spoken clearly and firmly on these thorny questions. Please God, the rest of us will take the responsibility of acting accordingly.
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Title Annotation:immorality of assisted suicide
Author:Burns, Robert E.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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