October is Respect Life Month, and we’re starting it with good news: the decision of the New York State Court of Appeals rejecting physician-assisted suicide.
As many in the medical field and the pro-life movement have pointed out, putting the right to kill into the hands of physicians, who are meant to be healers, is bad not only for patients but also for society. The opportunities for abuse are enormous, apart from the fundamental abuse of violating the sanctity of human life. The sanctity of human life is not, as some claim, a religious tenet. Certainly it can be founded upon religion, but it can also be deduced from the natural law and from ethics. It is in the Hippocratic oath, which contains a promise neither to administer nor to suggest taking a deadly drug.
A society that allows physicians to help patients kill themselves will find that sooner or later assisted death becomes encouraged death and then coerced death.
The court’s decision doesn’t mean that we can lay the issue aside. We still have work to do. I was struck by the statement of Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference:
“The decision is a significant victory for those who would be most at risk of abuse and most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, including the isolated elderly, persons with disabilities and those who are depressed and overcome with hopelessness.”
We need to find new ways to address isolation and disability, but especially hopelessness. Isolation and disability have obvious remedies: bring the isolated person into some kind of network; assist the disabled person medically and in other ways. Make isolated and disabled persons part of a community or group. Let them know that their lives have value because every human life has value and dignity, regardless of age or physical condition. Let them know that there are people who care about them.
Hopelessness is different. It can be invisible, and it can afflict those who are not physically ill. Persons who are battling hopelessness can often hide it or disguise it. There are tragic stories about people who committed suicide, or tried to, while those who knew them said afterward that they did not suspect that anything was wrong, or wrong enough to warrant intervening.
What is hope? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promise and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Catholics need to think more about hope and how well we practice it.
How do we bring hope to those who are not believers? What does it mean to have hope when you are elderly and growing less able to care for yourself, or when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness? Those are hard questions, but one thing is certain: Hope has no expiration date. We are called to hope always. Hope doesn’t necessarily mean waiting for a desired outcome. It also means trusting that our lives matter, and that we are loved and cared about.
It was said of the early Christians, “See how they love one another.” We need to live so that people will say, “See these Christians, how they are filled with hope.” We can’t force others to hope, but perhaps we can draw them by the way we practice hope ourselves. We might even win the hearts of some without faith. When you see a crowd of people looking with joy in the same direction, you’re likely to look that way, too.
If we live each day with trust and patience, and look forward in faith, we will draw others to hope as we do. We might also draw some to believe what we believe: That death doesn’t have the last word. The Word has the last word.
At the very least, we will draw others to see that death has no power over love.