DEFYING THE DEATH ETHIC AMERICAN OPINION (The New American) Defying the Death Ethic Fr. James Thornton One of the symptoms of a society in the grips of moral crisis is a tendency to refer to reprehensible acts by soft-sounding euphemisms, by names that do not directly excite human qualms or agitate scruples and that evade precise reflection on the reality of certain situations. For example, in our modern lexicon, abortion is called “freedom of choice,” sexual libertinage is dubbed “alternative lifestyles,” and certain forms of genocide-in-slow-motion can be made to seem more acceptable under the name “family planning.” Such are the mental tricks and the “word magic” employed to quiet the normal functioning of our consciences. Sadly, they work on a great many people for long periods of time. Like certain narcotics, they dull the moral senses and can eventually blot out such feelings completely. This being so, let us examine a concept that is very old, that disappeared from civilized life for almost two millennia, and that has now begun its return, lifting itself ever higher on the distant horizon, like a huge, menacing, black cloud. That concept is known as euthanasia. “Good Death” The English word euthanasia is derived from the Greek and means, literally, “good death.” According to its oldest meaning, it signifies merely the relatively painless, gentle passage of someone from this life to the next, without necessarily any human inference or intervention. Even in the Christian tradition, we sometimes hear the term “good death” used in the sense that the departed person died at peace with himself, with his family, and with God. However, an alternative definition, more in accord with contemporary usages, generally suggests something quite different: It indicates the bringing about of the death of a human being, either by suicide or killing, ostensibly to prevent extreme physical pain or mental anguish. Euthanasia, according to the teaching of every traditional Christian group, is looked upon as suicide or murder, plain and simple, and, until recently, was universally condemned in all societies whose roots grew out of Christianity. This teaching holds that a supposedly worthy end, in this case the termination of pain and suffering, never, according to traditional moral norms, justifies immoral or unethical means. With the rise of revolutionary ideologies in the late 18th century, Darwinistic philosophies in the following century, and the concomitant decline in fidelity to Christian teaching, especially among educated classes, changes in belief regarding the dignity and value of human life gradually came to be more widely accepted. The full significance of this change in outlook manifested itself sharply for the first time almost 60 years ago, in one of the most cultivated nations of Europe — Germany, the land of Bach, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven. Early in September 1939, shortly after the opening shots of what would become the Second World War, Adolf Hitler held an important conference with key legal and medical officials of the Reich government. Hitler had decided that, in view of Germany’s desperate need for hospital beds to accommodate war casualties, a euthanasia program must be undertaken. The incurably insane, those suffering advanced cases of senility, and others suffering similar conditions were to be painlessly killed, opening, in that manner, numerous hospital beds for the war wounded. In response to Hitler’s conference, the chief medical officer of Germany in that era, Dr. Leonardo Conti, immediately began a long series of discussions with legal, medical, and psychiatric experts to insure that whatever happened was done in accordance with law. Characteristically, Hitler quickly became impatient at Conti’s delays and, finally, arbitrarily dictated a secret decree. That document authorized certain officials to begin at once to “grant those who are by all human standards incurably ill a merciful death.” Census forms, seemingly for statistical purposes only, were circulated to doctors requiring that they list data on all persons with certain incurable mental and physical debilities. Secret panels of medical experts were then convened to decide who among the patients would live and who would die. Many thousands, over the next five years, were thus quietly slain. But there is more to the story. The Church Cries Out Sometime in the middle of 1941, Clemens August Count von Galen, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Münster, received confidential reports about what was happening. With great courage, in July of that year, the Bishop delivered a dramatic, stinging rebuke to the persons responsible for the euthanasia program, in an open pastoral letter. Some weeks later he initiated private criminal proceedings in the public courts against the parties responsible, who at that time were still unknown to him. This was required, he explained to his flock, by German law. Any German citizen who had knowledge of a gross violation of criminal law was bound by that law to report it, and, if necessary, to take action to bring it to a halt. Hitler, embarrassed by these shocking disclosures, ordered a halt to the secret euthanasia operation, but the program continued until February 1945. After the war, medical doctors, and others who initiated and took part in this program, were prosecuted and tried before Allied military tribunals, and a number of the more prominent figures were hanged for their complicity in these crimes. Ordinary Americans, and other people of the civilized world, were deeply horrified in those years by the idea of any government sponsoring such ruthless, immoral policies. It is a profoundly revelatory fact that the wartime German government was forced to keep this terrible program a secret from the German public. Such were the sensibilities of the German people in those years that even a highly authoritarian regime — indeed a police state — dared not allow the public to become aware of what was happening. Its panic over the public disclosures by Bishop von Galen demonstrates that even the Hitler regime, though it exercised total control of the German press, radio, and all other forms of information dissemination, as well as the police and all public education, nonetheless felt constrained by potential outrage from an aroused public. Americans, in contrast, do not live in a police state — at least not yet. They still pride themselves on their maintenance of a system of self-government, and on an open society with unfettered speech and independent communications. Americans also take justifiable pride in the value they have traditionally placed on human life. Life may be cheap in other places in the world, among other peoples and under other governmental systems, but innocent life has traditionally been held dear, and protected, in America. That remained true until about 25 years ago and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Until that time, the sacredness of innocent human life was shielded by law, but more importantly, it was protected by the innate decency and high moral standards of the American people, by an ethos set squarely on the solid foundation of 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Moral Blindness French historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to these American attributes when he wrote the following words about the America he visited in the 19th century: “In the United States the sovereign authority is religious ... there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its usefulness and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.” So it was, and so it remained until liberalism began to eat away at this wholesome influence. Some Americans of the 1990s, it would seem, have lost moral direction to such an extent that not only are they not offended by an idea that did offend and cause shame to Germans living under the Nazi regime in the 1940s, but they unabashedly lend support to the idea, even in public forums. Curiously, many of the justificatory pretexts and rationalizations expressed so frankly today are essentially identical to those quietly or clandestinely advanced in the Third Reich: that we have limited resources that should be expended on the healthy and not the incurably ill; that the incurably sick are a burden on their families and on society; that it is merciful deliberately to end suffering by active intervention — murder in other words; that innocent human life is not a gift from God, but a condition or state of being the fitness of which is to be judged by medical or governmental authorities alone, according to strictly pragmatic criteria. One thin barrier separating events of 60 years ago in Germany from the trends of recent decades is the distinction between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Theoretically, the arguments advanced today aim towards the legalization of voluntary euthanasia only — that is, to encouraging the notion that those who suffer physically should be allowed to request assistance from others (usually medical doctors) in destroying themselves. In contrast, the German decree dispensed death primarily to persons incapable of making any such decisions about their condition or of expressing their wishes at all. While we must admit that this is indeed a distinction, it is a very tenuous one. Eliminating “Useless Eaters” British writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote decades ago that the proponents of euthanasia always begin first by seeking the death of those who are nuisances to themselves, but inevitably move on to the next step, seeking death for those who are nuisances to others, once the first step becomes customary. Let us remember that in a bloated, bureaucratic welfare state such as ours, where the government assumes a rapidly expanding role in our lives, where the moral standards have fallen, and where shrinking resources are stretched ever tighter to cover perpetually expanding commitments, it is never long before government is forced to make life and death decisions about “useless eaters” whose cost of care, in dollars and cents, is quite high. Anyone who surveys the expansion of government power over the past 40 or 50 years cannot doubt that this is true. Whenever government has stepped into some facet of our lives, assurances have poured forth that we citizens need not be concerned, that no expansion of power is contemplated, and that some benefit or largess will be granted free of strings and without any obnoxious controls. Beneficence is always the illusory motive, the grabbing of power and the promotion of evil always the end products. And of all power, the power over the life or death of innocents is the last one that should ever be willingly entrusted to government. Our own government usurped some of those powers with the Supreme Court decision on abortion nearly 25 years ago. Yet if liberals and other champions of big government have their way, that power will be vastly augmented not by the will of the people or of their elected representatives, but by means of another High Court decision. On January 8, 1997, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for and against the existence of a constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to choose euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide. This case, generated in part by years of media publicity about people suffering unbearable pain during terminal illnesses, points to the possibility of a landmark decision, one of those decisive turning points for the whole nation, as significant as the rulings about separation of church and state in the ’40s, civil rights in the ’50s and ’60s, and abortion in the ’70s. Like those baneful edicts of past years, this latest one, should it come to pass, will herald a dramatic new chapter in American history, one that further, and calamitously, devaluates life, and that opens new possibilities for government intrusion into the most intimate aspects of our lives. These possibilities frighten many people, most especially persons who are suffering various debilitating diseases and injuries and who, despite their difficulties, do not want to die. Charles Odom, a 34-year-old resident of Mississippi and former Air Force officer, was injured in an automobile accident in 1984. He remained in a coma for three months after the accident and to this day is severely disabled, requiring the use of a wheel chair to move about. Though his condition may seem daunting to less intrepid men, Odom remains fiercely independent of outside help. Charles Odom traveled all the way from his home to the nation’s capital to demonstrate with other disabled people in front of the Supreme Court building. His blunt statement to the press about the Supreme Court deliberations is eloquent in its simplicity: “The worry is that if there’s a right to assisted suicide, it will be used to get rid of us.” It is easy to imagine bureaucrats and politicians scoffing at this fear, but a quick look at reality shows that it is by no means groundless. “Without Explicit Request” First, as we have seen, what Mr. Odom speaks of is precisely what has happened in other countries at other times. But we need not go back 60 years to Nazi Germany to find a chilling example. Current practices in the Netherlands are enough to give pause to any sensible man or woman. Years ago, the Netherlands changed its laws to permit euthanasia in certain circumstances. At first, physician-assisted suicide for people terminally ill was all that was allowed. Quickly, it was extended to the chronically ill, then to those with psychological afflictions, and finally to those unable to make such decisions at all. In the cold euphemism of the Dutch medical profession, the last category is known as “termination of the patient without explicit request” (suggesting dishonestly, perhaps, that the patient had somehow implicitly requested it). It is documented that each year Dutch doctors actively cause or hasten the deaths of 1,000 patients without the patients’ requests. Guidelines and safeguards set down by the Dutch government to regulate euthanasia are routinely ignored, without serious repercussions to the perpetrators. So, it seems, Charles Odom’s fears are definitely not without foundation. In a secular society, driven exclusively by utilitarian considerations, to proceed from physician-assisted suicides to wholly involuntary killings of patients is a matter of inescapable logic, as soon as certain underlying premises are accepted — namely, that innocent life is not a gift from God and that government and medical authorities may do whatever they like for the “good of society.” We must now briefly consider the problem of people suffering long periods of extreme pain. That shibboleth is one that must be dealt with directly, for it is one of the chief weapons of the pro-euthanasia wing of the death lobby, just as minuscule numbers of pregnancies allegedly caused by rape and incest are the constant catchwords of the pro-abortion wing of that same group. As we have noted, much of the mass media has encouraged the present drift towards government-sanctioned killings of patients by medical doctors, through their sensationalistic exploitation of cases involving people with terminal illnesses who are suffering great pain. Does that mean, as the media assumes, that there is a close connection between pain and the wish to die? Destroying a Myth According to Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, associate professor of medicine and social medicine at Harvard University, writing in the January 7th issue of the Wall Street Journal, the connection between intense pain and euthanasia is a myth, fostered by pro-death pressure groups and the media. As a rule, Dr. Emanuel observes, it is rarely the patient in severe pain who seeks euthanasia. “Physical pain,” writes Dr. Emanuel, “plays a very small role in motivating patients’ interest in or requests for euthanasia.” Most cancer patients suffering unremitting pain, for example, were more inclined to see euthanasia as unethical. Those more likely to seek or approve of physician-assisted suicide are rather those suffering from psychological factors, most especially extreme forms of depression. The 1991 Remmelink Report, done in the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, disclosed that pain was the sole motivating factor in only five percent of euthanasia cases. Another study in the same country indicated that pain was the primary rationale in only 11 percent of euthanasia requests. Thus, the chief justification for legalizing euthanasia — that it is necessary to end needless pain and suffering — is really a lie. The vast majority of people in severe pain do not wish to die. They want life. One cannot be oblivious to the reality of pain, or cold towards any human suffering. One cannot assuage pain with banalities, for pain is one of the most formidable facts of life in this world. From a medical standpoint, tremendous advances have been made in modern pain-relieving drugs and these help enormously. Various medical miracles mean that people rarely suffer pain to the extent that they did 100 years ago. >From a spiritual, Christian standpoint, pain, though exceedingly unpleasant, nevertheless serves some definite purpose in this less-than-perfect world of ours. Purpose in Pain The great Christian author C.S. Lewis reminds us that man is a fallen creature, rebellious and filled with self-will. God reminds us in many ways that we must be dependent on Him and must restrain the impulse to “go it alone.” One of those ways is through pain. Pain is an evil, without any question, but it is an evil permitted by God for a specific purpose. “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it,” Lewis comments. Many sorts of evil conceal themselves behind facades of contentment and pleasure. These, he says, represent “masked evil.” But, pain “is unmasked, unmistakable evil.” Lewis writes that “pain is not only immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities ... but pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Man must be roused to the existence of evil, or else, as Lewis writes, “he is enclosed in an illusion.” Pain demonstrates the existence of evil to an unmistakable degree, to a degree that no one can disregard. Pain tempers the rebellious human spirit, reminds us of our dependency on God and of our fragility, and turns us and our thoughts to the spiritual and the eternal. That is part of a traditional Christian view of pain, and it is an incontestable truth that this view once buttressed the courage of our ancestors in the days before modern medicine, and helped them to gather the strength to cope with the considerable suffering and hardship around them. The only thing that can save our great nation today is for all of us to strive to emulate the steadfast faith and courage of our forebears. Americans of these final years of the 20th century must soundly reject the twisted propaganda for death — that death can deliver them from pain and inconvenience. Doubtless, it is sometimes troublesome, and financially awkward, for some women to carry tiny children within themselves and to give them that greatest of all gifts that can be given — life. Sadly, some of them therefore shrug their obligation and choose death for their offspring, and millions of helpless innocents die. Likewise, it is bothersome and burdensome for some families to care for elders, for the sick, and for the severely disabled, and soon, they too may choose death for their kin, if our courts and politicians are allowed further to infringe on powers that belong to God alone. Millions more will die. Ill-conceived and diabolical schemes by elected officials, and unconscionable decisions by arrogant judges at all levels in the federal judiciary, promise to make commerce in death as commonplace as commerce in cabbages. If that should comes to pass, then our nation will have taken an irretrievable step on the road to moral catastrophe and its twin companion, political despotism. We must prevent our country from taking so fateful a step at all costs, and we must do so now.
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