Editor's Note: This reflection is from Christine Alwan. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristineAlwan.
Today, the United States elected Donald Trump to be the 45th president. There has been heated debate, especially among Catholics, when it comes to whether or not Trump was/is pro-life and if he is not, the theory is that his supporters should be and would thus bring about institutional changes that favor a pro-life agenda.
The issue of abortion received significant attention during this election. Some argued that, with Hillary Clinton’s and the Democratic Party’s history of support for increased access to abortion and funding Planned Parenthood, she would put America on a path of continued disregard for human life.
The Numbers: Baby Boomers and Millennials
As Tommy Tighe points out, there are a broad range of issues that Catholics must consider when they seek to elect candidates and promote policies that promote a culture of life. One of these topics is euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). And I think that Catholics have been so preoccupied with electing a candidate that will defund Planned Parenthood and curtail abortions that we may have forgotten that euthanasia — both as a policy provision and a practice — is on the rise.
The issue of PAS and euthanasia are particularly salient with the baby boomer generation entering retirement age, the largest generation in the United States after Millennials. Additionally, Social Security and Medicare payments do not cover the cost of living and medical care for a generation that will have increasing health problems as they age. Population growth in the United States remains stable largely due to immigration, not birthrates. We have a very large proportion of our population aging. And one day, this segment of the population will die. This will affect a larger number of people than previous generations because of the sheer number of baby boomers. Some may, eventually, be diagnosed with terminal illnesses or may simply no longer wish to be alive. This is a big issue, both due to its gravity and due to sheer numbers. And one day, my fellow Millennials, this issue will affect us too.
I am not asking Catholics to stop caring about abortion or other issues that pertain to fostering a culture of life. What I am asking you to do is to shift your focus for a moment and hear a case for why euthanasia is a much bigger issue than our American political system and the pro-life movement seems to realize or acknowledge.
Euthanasia and PAS are silent killers, often met with relative silence in the pro-life movement, especially during this election. Abortion is an outrage on the lives of society’s most vulnerable: the unborn. And the Church has vocalized this truth amongst its members and the broader American public. However, the Church also has a strong, clear teaching on euthanasia and PAS.The elderly and the terminally ill are also some of the most vulnerable among us. We must respect life from conception until natural death, even ifthat death includes suffering. And we cannot prioritize two vulnerable groups, although they are vulnerable in different ways. The Church has mobilized the March for Life, which is geared toward ending abortion However, we do not see the same level of political activism among Catholics and Christians when it comes to euthanasia and PSA. I plan to discuss several potential reasons for this later on.
Death on the Ballot
As of this writing, policymakers in the United States distinguish between euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. The difference between these two terms, while understood to elicit the same outcome, relies largely on who commits the act of ending a human life before natural death. In PAS, the doctor assists a patient in ending his/her own life. In euthanasia, a patient ends their own life, effectively committing suicide.
In this election, several states had PAS (also referred to as “the right to die”or “death with dignity”) on the ballot. Colorado passed Proposition 106, effectively allowing patients dying of terminal illnesses to end their own lives with both the consent and the assistance of their doctors. It joins Washington, California, Vermont, Oregon, and Montana in legalizing PAS during the 2016 election. Similar to abortion, these measures are often cloaked in the language of “choice” and the ability to live and die “on one’s own terms.” This year, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Maryland, North Carolina, Alaska, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia will consider PAS legislation. In case you were counting, that’s 18 states, plus our nation’s capital.
While I certainly empathize with those who are or who love someone suffering from terminal illnesses, I would not choose PAS or euthanasia for myself. And I would not choose it for someone I love.
My Mother’s Story of Suffering: A Case for Natural Death
My mother, Mary Alwan, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in October 2010. For those of you who are unfamiliar with pancreatic cancer, it has a survival rate of about 1% at Stage IV. We were blindsided with her diagnosis, and in May, after returning from my freshman year of college, I began to see just how quickly she was fading.
She routinely felt weak. Severe back pain that radiated from her chest cavity to her kidneys after every meal. I would often read aloud to her after meals or watch comedy shows to distract her so that she could both eat a reasonable amount and not notice the pain as much.
One day, she collapsed after trying to get some sun on our deck. Her legs had become so weak, the cancer attacking her body so fiercely, that she no longer had the strength to stand. She didn’t leave her bed much after that.
In July 2011, she was hospitalized for prolonged heartburn. My mother, who had never had heart problems, had a heart attack. Her body was so overworked from fighting the cancer that it had gone into arrest. She was hospitalized for a week. The doctors told her that they could help make her comfortable, but that she was nearing the end of her life.
The next few weeks happened in a whirlwind. She slept during the day and became nocturnal. Her legs and abdomen swelled with fluid. Her body was destroying itself.Hospice came. They gave us morphine for when she felt pain. They said that she felt guilty to feel pain because of her faith. I refuted them, rebellious and enraged. She did not feel guilty because of her faith. Her faith was getting her through this.
She died on August 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm. She died at the hour of Divine Mercy enfolded in love, held by her husband and her two daughters after receiving the Last Sacraments. Her last words were “Hail Mary.” She died this way, on this day, at the hour of Divine Mercy without planning it. I don’t think that she could have planned it any better had she tried. Her friends from her church group were praying the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in our living room as she gave up her spirit. But the beauty was not in the circumstances of her death, although God did choose to bless us in a special way in that regard. In fact, her death, in so many ways, was horrid. Watching her waste away and lose the light of life in her eyes was devastating, grotesque, and so incredibly raw. It has been five years and it feels like yesterday. A lump still catches in my throat.
I’m sure that anyone who chose PAS or euthanasia could also be surrounded by love . I’m sure that someone who chose PAS or euthanasia could feel a sense of peace and resignation that the fight was over, that the pain was ending.
But, as Catholics, as followers of Christ, we know the truth: pain is not to be feared. Pain can be beautiful.
The common refrain may be that the terminally ill have suffered enough at the hands of a body that betrayed them. The common refrain may be that we should show them mercy and let them end their suffering because we can’t bear to see them suffer anymore, that we can’t bear to suffer with them. The common refrain may be that, in a circumstance where they have had so little control, this gives them a sense of agency over their bodies, over their lives, over the thing that is killing them.
But these are false promises. Ending one’s life through PAS or euthanasia will not change the fact that we will suffer because we see our loved ones suffering and dying a death we would not choose for them. We would not choose death for anyone we love, just as Jesus did not choose death for us. Instead, He chose Life for us by enduring suffering Himself.
Agency is not a god to be worshipped. It is a false promise that tricks us into believing that we can control the number of days we have to live, the exact manner in which we die, or the way our lives will turn out. Suffering is not a curse to be avoided. It is an unfortunate effect of sin. But it is the way by which we can unite ourselves to Jesus on the cross.
Most importantly, a life that entails suffering is still a life. One’s life does not cease to be worthwhile because of pain or a terminal illness. In many ways, it is because we know the days are few and the time is short that life becomes even more precious. It is because we know that they are about to give up their spirit that we want them physically with us, for as long as they can stay. To say that our loved ones and our society at large would be better off if we legalized PAS and euthanasia would be a lie, one that the Church, in Her Truth and Love, cannot accept its children to tolerate or to believe.
We must remember that it is not how we die that gives or maintains our dignity. It is the fact that we live, that we were created by the Source of Life, that gives us our dignity.
Next time, I’ll discuss some reasons for why I think the pro-life movement has not addressed PAS and euthanasia with the same vigor as abortion. Until then, may the Lord, the Giver of Life, together with the Blessed Mother, help us to see that our dignity and our lives come from God alone.