I was distressed to read that the Montana Catholic Conference (MCC) is “already working on a plan” to counter the Montana Supreme Court’s recent ruling on physician-assisted death (see “Fight to the end,” Jan. 7, 2010). I assumed that this was just another case of well-intentioned but misguided, believers trying to “save souls” by enforcing their own morals on everyone, believers and non-believers alike (and for the record, I count myself among the former group). But just to make sure I was getting both sides, I decided to check out what the MCC had to say about why they were opposed to allowing the terminally ill to end their own suffering. Now I’m even more distressed. Not only does the MCC oppose physician-assisted death, they don’t even know what it is.
To wit, their official statement points to the fact that Montana has the third highest suicide rate in the nation and mentions that the state has hired a “Suicide Prevention Officer” and has a “Suicide Prevention Plan.” So, apparently, the MCC can’t see any difference between a distraught individual overcome by a temporary state of hopelessness and a terminally ill patient with no prospects but excruciating pain for the rest of their life.
Further on, Bishop Michael W. Warfel is quoted as saying, “vulnerable populations…can very easily be manipulated into accepting a prescribed death if they feel they are a financial or emotional burden to their families. Proper health care should address the problem, not accept prearranged death as the appropriate solution.” I say, what an incredible slander against the entire medical profession! Is he actually suggesting that trained doctors will “manipulate” otherwise normal patients into offing themselves?
The MCC’s statement on the ruling declares, “Catholic teaching upholds the dignity and inherent worth of every life,” but it’s difficult to see how telling someone they must suffer for as long as we can keep them alive is respecting that person’s dignity. As Hebrew University professor Ze’ev W. Falk points out, “The Jewish belief that human beings were created Imago Dei does not necessarily exclude the possibility that they can end their lives. On the contrary, just because of this belief, death may be preferable to certain situations, which might be seen as desecration of God’s image in the world.” One would think that a priest would be hip to the difference between an eternal soul and a transient body and know that the “dignity and inherent worth” lie in the former and not the latter. Perhaps this is overly subtle metaphysics for the MCC, but really it’s a pretty basic concept.
I am greatly disheartened that the Catholic church has decided to throw its weight behind the cause of needlessly prolonged suffering. If the MCC gets its way, it won’t mean that terminally ill patients won’t continue to make the choice to end their lives, only that more of them will have to take the route of Janet Murdock (self-starvation) or my friend’s mother who, lacking a medical alternative, finally decided to end her years of battling MS with the tried-and-true method of a .45 discharged into the roof of her mouth.
She was a good Irish Catholic woman, and though it’s too late to ask her now, I bet both she and her children who found her the next morning would have much preferred something a little more dignified. So let’s all hope the Supreme Court decision sticks and that the MCC doesn’t get its way. Let’s all hope…and pray.