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Christians and political action: euthanasia
This is the edited text of a talk given by Babette Francis at Sherlake Cultural Centre, Chicago, March 2010.
Babette Francis is the National and Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., an organisation that is active on pro-life issues.
My starting point on preserving and defending the dignity of the human person is Chapter l, verse 27, of Genesis: 'So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them' (Imago Dei - the principle which inspires us).
Before his February visit to Scotland, Pope Benedict told Scottish bishops that 'euthanasia strikes at the heart of Christianity', and urged the Scottish Parliament to oppose a Bill legalising euthanasia. He said assisted suicide was a sign of 'the increasing tide of secularism' in Scotland and encouraged Catholics to take an active stand in speaking against it.
So I make no apology if my approach is political. Think of those who battle in the political arena against euthanasia as the ground troops who make it possible for the options of palliative care and hos- pices for the terminally ill. We oppose a utilitarian approach to end of life decisions and the corruption of the medical profession in crossing the moral boundary between compassion and killing.
Meanwhile the push is on around the world to legalise an array of private killings, whether these be called assisted suicide, dying with dignity or voluntary euthanasia. It is tragic that in three states of the US physician-assisted suicide is legal. But elsewhere there is good overseas news to encourage those who are working against euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Last year in Scotland, health minister Nicola Sturgeon said she opposed the assisted suicide Bill being concerned that it could be abused to target the elderly and disabled. In addition, the British Medical Association has joined pro-life groups and disability rights advocates in opposing the Bill.
'The BMA would be very disappointed if we ended up legalising physician assisted suicide in Scotland,' Dr George Fernie of the BMA said. 'People when they have a debilitating illness that may end their life are extremely vulnerable, they're at a fragile stage. And our worry is they're going to contemplate ending their life when that really isn't their wish.'
The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics panned the Bill, calling it 'dangerous and unnecessary.' The panel saw the Bill as likely to turn disabled and terminally ill people into second class citizens. The Council said assisted dying was unnecessary because physical suffering can be adequately alleviated in all but the most rare cases. 'When dying patients realise they do not need to suffer, they often change their minds about euthanasia.'
Pope Benedict told the Scottish bishops that only complete support for all Catholic teaching can lend credibility to their voices: 'If the Church's teaching is compromised, even slightly, in one such area, then it becomes hard to defend the fullness of Catholic doctrine in an integral manner.'
The Scottish Bill, moved by an Independent MSP, Ms Macdonald, who is suffering from Parkinsons, has now been referred to a special committee.
In November the French National Assembly rejected an attempt to legalise euthanasia in a 326 to 202 vote.
The Bill, tabled by Manuel Valls, deputy for the Parti Socialiste, described euthanasia as 'medical assistance to die with dignity,' and said euthanasia should be allowed for 'all adults with advanced or terminal illnesses of a serious and incurable nature; those who suffer from physical or mental pain that cannot be appeased by medicine and that the patient considers intolerable.'
Bill supporter, Laurent Fabius, argued that since euthanasia was currently being practised 'outside a legal framework,' it was necessary to have a law regulating it.
Activists opposing euthanasia strongly criticised such language which they said could lead to patients suffering from mental illnesses like depression being at risk of medically approved suicide.
'Euthanasia is not a medical act. The right to die is not a medical act,' said Union for a Popular Movement party deputy Jean Leonetti, author of a 2005 law on dying that promotes the use of palliative care.
In November last year, South Australian pro-lifers defeated a Bill moved by Mark Parnell, a Greens member of the Legislative Council. It is usually Greens who move euthanasia or abortion bills - Greens love trees but hate people.
The Bill was tied l0/l0, and we knew the Speaker who had a casting vote was pro-euthanasia. There was much prayer and lobbying by pro- lifers, and on the final vote an Opposition MP, David Ridgway, changed his mind and voted against the Bill, so it was lost ll/9. Since his previous vote in favour of the Bill, Mr Ridgway's mother had died. Perhaps his grief and actual confrontation with the death of a loved one made him realise that he could not have sentenced her to death, given that every remaining day of her life was precious.
We have seen something similar with Australian philosopher Peter Singer, now teaching at Princeton. For years he has been promoting euthanasia for those with terminal illnesses as well as Alzheimer's patients. However, when his own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Singer did not have her euthanased but rather had her cared for in an expensive nursing home.
We do not know what goes on in the human heart and soul, but possibly David Ridgway realised when his mother was dying that the Greens' allegations that the terminally ill can be a burden, or selfish for not requesting to be euthanased, are untrue.
My husband died seven months ago, and I know how much I longed to have him live one more week, one more day. And David Ridgway may have also longed for more time with his mother and realised he could not support the Bill, which would have cheated not only the dying but their loved ones of precious time together.
The defeat of the Bill in South Australia was a victory, but it did not come without a lot of ground work, especially by the Australian Family Association, and a lot of lobbying and personal contact with Members of Parliament. I would urge all of those who are not involved in politics to become involved. We are fortunate to live in a democracy, and should not waste this God-given blessing.
The American Medical Association states that physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally inconsistent with a physician's professional role and that it is critical that the medical profession redoubles its efforts to ensure dying patients are provided with optimal treatment to relieve pain and discomfort.
The policy of the American Nurses Association states: 'The ANA believes that the nurse should not participate in assisted suicide. Such an act is in violation of the Code for Nurses and the ethical traditions of the profession'.
The slippery slope towards killing is actually a downhill escalator. In Holland where euthanasia was promoted as mercy killing with the consent of terminal patients enduring intractable pain, now patients, especially the elderly and confused, are euthanased without their consent. Disabled newborns are also euthanased.
In Oregon, patients Wagner and Stroup, both living with cancer and dependent on the state medical plan for medical treatments, received letters from Oregon Medicare denying them access to medical treatment for cancer, and offering only assisted suicide or palliative care.
In Britain the mother who cares for her paraplegic adult son James, who had been injured in an accident as a child, says, 'My fear is if people think of assisted suicide as an option, then the balance will change. As a society, we will shift towards a different mindset, in which people like James appear expendable'.
Dr Philip Nitschke, Australia's Dr Death, gets much flattering media coverage. He has promoted the practice of people purchasing Nembutal from veterinary clinics in Mexico. He claims 300 people have purchased lethal doses and that 125 of them have killed themselves with this drug. The National Coroners Service stated that of the 38 Nembutal deaths that were fully investigated, only 11 involved people with chronic pain or a terminal condition. We can only speculate that the other 27 took their lives for psychological reasons.
What they needed was not a lethal end to their pain, but love. A woman in Western Australia, an academic, was 80 years of age and single with no children. She was not ill but killed herself because she said she was tired of living and had nothing to live for. I wonder if she could have been saved had someone given her an affectionate dog, one from the many abandoned ones in the local pound waiting to be put down if an owner cannot be found. If she had had a dog that needed her, it is possible both might have lived.
In an address to the Pontifical Academy for Life in February, Pope Benedict said that with the rapid advance of technology, it is more imperative than ever that bioethics be guided by the Natural Law that is 'inscribed by God the Creator in the heart of man.
'When respect for the dignity of the person is invoked it is fundamental that it be complete, total and with no strings attached. Without the 'universal principles' of the fundamental right of all human beings to have their inherent dignity regarded - a 'common denominator for the whole of humanity' - the result will be a 'relativistic drift at the legislative level.'
'Every law in every society is called to recognise this right as inviolable and every single person must respect and promote it ...'.
In the debate on the Federal Bill aimed at overturning the Northern Territory's euthanasia legislation, one of the Senators won over to the pro-life side was Senator Kay Patterson. Initially in favour of euthanasia, she quoted from poet John Keats' Ode to a Nightingale:
'Darkling I listen, and for many a time
'I have been half in love with an easeful Death'.
Keats suffered from illness for much of his adult life - tuberculosis, fevers and chills - and died young. No doubt he felt awful but still could enjoy the ecstatic singing of a nightingale as he wrote:
'Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
'To cease upon the midnight with no pain ...'.
Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Canada, has been promoting a leaflet titled, 'Caring NOT Killing'. That is the challenge for us: to ease the pain of the dying and the depressed so that they might think, if not of nightingales, perhaps of angels.
On 21 April 2010 Bill C-384, the private members Bill that would have legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada was decisively defeated by a vote of 228 to 59.
Alex Schadenberg commented: 'It is our goal to work with MPs and Canadian leaders to,
* improve palliative/hospice care throughout Canada;
* change attitudes and improve services for people with disabilities;
* institute an effective national suicide prevention strategy;
* promote programs that identify and eliminate the scourge of elder abuse.
'We reject the concept that killing can be the answer to problems that are properly solved by a caring society'.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 5 (June 2010), p. 11
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