Brief Reflections on Euthanasia
By Fr. Frank A. Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Increasingly, in the courts and the media and in conversation, we are hearing
about euthanasia and the so-called "right to die."
It's time we all are fully informed about what is going on, and what the
appropriate response should be.
Euthanasia is not a future problem. It is a present problem. It is happening
now and becoming increasingly accepted. And we are asleep, not realizing that
the road we are on will lead to the massive elimination of the elderly and
"incompetent," and anyone else considered to be a burden to society.
Consider the Nancy Cruzan case. She had been in a coma for almost eight
years, but was NOT dying, NOT deteriorating. The courts allowed food and water
to be discontinued, and 12 days later (on the day after Christmas) she died.
Note well, she did not die of the coma. She died of starvation. She was 33.
Or consider Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who let Janet Adkins, a 54 year old sufferer
of early Alzheimer's, use his homemade "suicide machine" to kill herself. She
pushed a button which released lethal fluids into her body. He has likewise
administered death to dozens of others.
Is this the direction we want our society to go? Is life valuable only when
it is healthy? Are we the ones who decide when we die? Is suffering meaningless?
The answer to all these questions is NO, and I hope in these reflections to
explain why. Let us all do some serious thinking on these matters. It's a
question of life and death.
.We do not have a "right to die." Many people now speak of such a
thing, but without the proper understanding of the terminology they use.
A "right" is a moral claim. We do not have a claim on death. Rather, death
has a claim on us!
We do not decide when our life will end, any more than we decided when it
began. Much less does someone else -- a relative, a doctor, or a
legislator--decide when our life will end. None of us is master over life and
What we do have a right to is proper care. It is never "care" in any sense of
the word, to terminate life, even if that life is full of suffering. We have no
right to terminate life.
There are groups in our country pushing for the "right" to use lethal
injections on the seriously ill, or to remove their food and water. We must
oppose such moral nonsense with all our strength. And the time to oppose it is
now, before it becomes solidified in law.
No matter how ill a patient is, we never have a right to put that person to
death. Rather, we have a duty to care for and preserve life.
But to what length are we required to go to preserve life? No religion or
state holds that we are obliged to use every possible means to prolong life. The
means we use have traditionally been classified as either "ordinary" or
"Ordinary" means must always be used. This is any treatment or procedure
which provides some benefit to the patient without excessive burden or hardship.
"Extraordinary" means are optional. These are measures which do present an
The distinction here is NOT between "artificial" and "natural." Many
artificial treatments will be "ordinary" means in the moral sense, as long as
they provide some benefit without excessive burden. It depends, of course, on
the specific case in point, with all its medical details. We cannot figure out
ahead of time, in other words, whether or not we ourselves or a relative want
some specific treatment to be used on us "when the time comes," because we do
not know in advance what our medical situation will be at that time or what
treatments will be available. When the time does come, however, we must consult
on the medical and moral aspects of the situation. Remember, procedures
providing benefit without unreasonable hardship are obligatory; others are not.
You should consult your clergyman when the situations arise.
According to the 1980 declaration from the Vatican, Jura et Bona,
"euthanasia", or "mercy killing" is defined as "an action or an omission which
of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this
way be eliminated."
Our country is on a collision course with euthanasia. Think about the issue
now, and work to change the course, or else you may end up a victim of it.
"Mercy killing". I do not see what killing has to do with mercy. What I do
see is that those who advocate it have a MISPLACED compassion. They want to
eliminate all suffering. Very nice, but very unrealistic...and also very pagan.
I ask you readers who are Christian, is all suffering meaningless? Does it
have no value at all, no purpose? I do not wish suffering on anyone. But when it
comes, is our only response to be to eliminate it, even to the point of
euthanasia? You tell me whether this is the Christian gospel!
Was the suffering of Christ meaningless? Or do we not say, "We adore You, O
Christ, and we bless You, for BY YOUR HOLY CROSS You have redeemed the world."?
Did He not tell His followers to embrace the cross? Do we not join our pain to
His to save souls?
Even from a secular viewpoint, does not suffering provide an occasion to grow
in wisdom, character, and compassion?
The push for mercy killing is utterly pagan. Christian and all reasonable
people must oppose it.
The core evil of euthanasia is that an individual or group of people think
they have the right to put someone else to death.
"Killing a human being" is not a very nice concept. To make it more
acceptable, therefore some people start playing with the language. They say, for
example, that the one who is incurably ill or comatose is a "vegetable". A
vegetable? What kind? A cucumber? Carrot?
NO MATTER WHAT THE AILMENT HE/SHE SUFFERS FROM, A HUMAN BEING IS ALWAYS
HUMAN, AND ALWAYS HAS A RIGHT TO LIFE WHICH NOBODY, OF ANY PHILOSOPHICAL,
POLITICAL, OR RELIGIOUS PERSUASION EVER IS ABLE TO TAKE AWAY. In fact, it is
precisely when life is afflicted by weakness and illness that it is all the MORE
deserving of our care.
Remember the song, "He Ain't Heavy; He's My Brother". Advocates of euthanasia
do not see the ill this way, but only as a burden. God forgive them.
And how about you?
Those who push euthanasia (the killing of the seriously ill by act or
omission) are all around. Have you met them? Have you heard them on TV and read
their articles? If not, the time has come to be aware that they are on the march
with their ungodly, death-dealing philosophy, trying to carve it into law.
Central to their utterly false philosophy is the notion that some lives are
NOT WORTH LIVING. These lives, they maintain, are more trouble than they are
worth. They have too much suffering, and are too much of a burden on the
resources of society.
You know, if we were talking about a car, or a typewriter, or some other
THING, we could say that when enough things go wrong with it, it becomes more
trouble than it's worth. Repairs would be too costly, too involved. Throw it out
and get a new one.
But we cannot apply this mindset to HUMAN PERSONS. A person is never more
trouble than he/she is worth. Notice, we do not use the pronoun "it" to refer to
a human being. There's a reason for that. A person is not a "thing", an "it", an
object whose value is to be calculated on some kind of economic cost/benefit
analysis scale. A person is worth more than the ENTIRE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE! Ponder
that. Human life is of INFINITE VALUE, and this remains true no matter how
small, weak, incommunicative, disabled, diseased, or "unproductive" (in the eyes
of a materialistic, consumerist society like ours) it may be.
Take up the torch of life. Defend human life from euthanasia.
Many of you have heard of "Living Wills." These are documents by which a
person can give in advance a directive to have life-sustaining medical treatment
withheld or discontinued at the time of future serious illness, should he or she
then be unable to make medical decisions. These living wills are being promoted
as necessary for the person to die peacefully and with dignity. HOWEVER, living
wills can be harmful rather than helpful. They are unnecessary and dangerous for
patients, doctors, and society.
One of the many reasons that we should not get involved with living wills is
that the language used is too broad and can be open to a variety of
interpretations. This will vary from one document to another. But a living will
distributed by the Concern for Dying organization asks that the signer "not be
kept alive by medications" or "artificial means." What does that mean? An
aspirin is "medication," is it not? Drinking through a straw is "artificial."
People can construe meanings for these words which the signer of the document
There are other serious reasons not to make a living will, which are examined
"Living Wills" are unnecessary and dangerous. There are many reasons; here I
will share one more.
According to an authoritative brochure on Living Wills printed by the
Metropolitan New York Right to Life Foundation, Living Wills are unnecessary
because they propose to give rights which patients and doctors already possess.
To quote the brochure, "People already have the right to make informed consent
decisions telling their family and physicians how they want to be treated if and
when they can no longer make decisions for themselves. Doctors are already free
to withhold or withdraw useless procedures in terminal cases that provide no
benefit to the patient. Some people fear that medical technology will be used to
torture them in their final days. But it is more likely that the 'medical
heroics' people fear are the very treatments that will make possible a more
comfortable, less painful death."
Catholics must follow the moral teachings of the Church in these matters and
should consult a priest in specific cases. But by all means avoid "Living
Wills." More on this to come.
Can you predict the future? Specifically, can you tell me what form of
sickness or disease you will be afflicted with in the years ahead? Can you tell
me what kind of treatment you will need?
Of course not, says common sense. But common sense is not as common as we
might think. The making of a "Living Will" presupposes that we know what kind of
medical treatments we will want to use or avoid in the future. It speaks about
treatments before we even know the disease; it turns a future option into a
As I have explained above, not every medical treatment is always obligatory.
But to figure out which treatments are obligatory, morally speaking, and which
are only optional, one must know the medical facts of the case. These facts are
then examined in the light of the moral principles involved. But to try to make
that decision in advance is to act without all the necessary information.
Moreover, to make that decision legally binding by means of a formal document is
really putting the cart before the horse. It is not morally justified.
Living Wills are both unnecessary and dangerous.
Some years ago, the winner of a Pro-Life Essay Contest sponsored by the
Archdiocese of New York was Anne Marie O'Halloran, from Maria Regina High School
in Hartsdale. Her topic was euthanasia. Let me share with you some of her own
"One of the highest values this country holds is freedom. This has led to a
situation in which individuals believe they have the right to live completely as
they desire. Human beings are seen as limitless. They have the right to decide
how they want to live and how they should die....Another quality prized by our
culture is power. We believe, or rather, we would like to believe, that we can
control anything and everything to ensure a safe and comfortable
lifestyle....Our society has created a world in which it is always possible and
always considered right to take the easy way out of problems, suffering and
death. That way is completely against the example Jesus set for us; it is
against Christian values. We, as Christians, must form a counter-culture. We do
not pray for an easy, free or painless life and death. Rather we should pray for
strength to sustain and understand the life God gave us to live."
May more young men and women come to see what this student sees and says so
well, that we are NOT the absolute masters of life and death. Only God is. May
His gift of life be respected.
Reflections on the growing problem of euthanasia require a word regarding the
medical profession. The word is first of all one of gratitude. So many people
have dedicated themselves to the care of others. The skills of medicine are
skills to preserve and care for life. The heart and soul of the medical
profession is UNWAVERING RESPECT FOR THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON, a dignity
which is not bestowed by the State or by anyone else, but belongs to the very
nature of the person. Those who promote this dignity deserve thanks.
The state of our times is also a plea to those who practice medicine: never
allow the skills of your profession to be used to destroy the gift of life.
Euthanasia is just a nice word for killing. We must oppose the trend which says
that there are some lives not worth living. We must oppose the mentality which
says that we should end a life in order to eliminate suffering. No, we do not
end life. We care for it. When life is weak and afflicted with pain, it is all
the more deserving of our care.
Our times demand courage and wisdom. May these not be lacking to any one of
On September 12, 1991, a statement was released by the Administrative
Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the statement
centered on euthanasia. Since this statement is addressed both to Catholics and
non-Catholics alike, I would like to reproduce it here. As it calls us to reject
euthanasia, may it give us much food for thought. Here is how the letter begins:
"Current efforts to legalize euthanasia place our society at a critical
juncture. These efforts have received growing public attention, due to new
publications giving advice on methods of suicide and some highly publicized
instances in which family members or physicians killed terminally ill persons or
helped them kill themselves."
"Proposals such as those in the Pacific Northwest, spearheaded by the Hemlock
Society, aim to change state laws against homicide and assisted suicide to allow
physicians to provide drug overdoses or lethal injections to their terminally
"Those who advocate euthanasia have capitalized on people's confusion,
ambivalence, and even fear about the use of modern life-prolonging technologies.
Further, borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the
"right to choose" must prevail over all other considerations. Being able to
choose the time and manner of one's death, without regard to what is chosen, is
presented as the ultimate freedom. A decision to take one's life or to allow a
physician to kill a suffering patient, however, is very different from a
decision to refuse extraordinary or disproportionately burdensome treatment.
"As Catholic leaders and moral teachers, we believe that life is the most
basic gift of a loving God - a gift over which we have stewardship but not
"Our tradition, declaring a moral obligation to care for our own life and
health and to seek such care from others, recognizes that we are not morally
obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances.
But that tradition clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of
life one must never directly intend to cause one's own death, or the death of an
innocent victim, by action or omission. As the Second Vatican Council declared,
"Euthanasia and willful suicide" are "offenses against life itself" which
"poison civilization"; they "debase the perpetrators more than the victims and
militate against the honor of the Creator" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church
in the Modern World, No. 27)."
"As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said, "Nothing
and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether
a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, or and old person, or one suffering
from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying." Moreover, we have no right
"to ask for this act of killing" for ourselves or for those entrusted to our
care; "nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action."
We are dealing here with a "violation of person, a crime against life, and an
attack on humanity" (Declaration on Euthanasia," 1980)."
"Legalizing euthanasia would also violate American convictions about human
rights and equality. The Declaration of Independence proclaims our inalienable
rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If our right to life
itself is diminished in value, our other rights will have no meaning. To destroy
the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from
long-standing legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of
unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who
represent the interests of elderly citizens, persons with disabilities and
persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses are justifiably alarmed when some
hasten to confer on them the "freedom" to be killed.
"We call on Catholics, and on all persons of good will, to reject proposals
to legalize euthanasia. We urge families to discuss issues surrounding the care
of terminally ill loved ones in light of sound moral principles and the demands
of human dignity, so that patients need not feel helpless or abandoned in the
face of complex decisions about their future. And we urge health care
professionals, legislators and all involved in this debate to seek solutions to
the problems of terminally ill patients and their families that respect the
inherent worth of all human beings, especially those most in need of our love