A frail old man lies in bed, with a nasal-gastric tube giving him liquid nourishment. He is surrounded by loved ones. He is dying.
It's a scene that repeats itself every day. In this case, the whole world is paying attention, because the dying man is Pope John Paul II.
We grew accustomed to seeing the pope old and sick, because the symptoms of his illness--trembling, frailty, loss of speech--were not hidden from the world. The man who opened his pontificate with "Be not afraid!" bravely underwent what we fear the most: weakness.
Discussions of end-of-life issues often fixate on curtailing suffering or "dying with dignity," but deeper issues go unspoken: how do we accept weakness, both in ourselves and in others? Where do we place our hope--in our accomplishments or in God and love?
"Autonomy"? Or Fear?
Pain is a terrifying thing. That's why those who advocate for doctor-prescribed suicide dwell on it. Look at "Jane Smith," they might say: a woman with late-stage bone cancer in untreatable pain, who rationally asks her doctor to prescribe a drug that will end her misery.
But Jane Smith doesn't exist: it is never rational to choose suicide, and all pain can be treated. On the one hand, the fear that we might get trapped by life-saving technology fuels the notion that suicide could sometimes be a rational choice. But neither the Church nor the medical profession nor the law requires patients to submit to, or persist in, treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome.
On the other hand, pain management, palliative care, and hospice care are fully capable of responding to the needs of the dying. In fact, data from the first state to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide show that pain is not usually decisive. In 2010, the Oregon Public Health Division found that the leading reasons people gave for asking for death were loss of autonomy (94 percent), decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable (94 percent), and loss of dignity (79 percent). It is not pain but fear that drives people to suicide. Fear of dependence. Fear of "being a burden."
Eliminate suffering or eliminate the sufferer?
Few would say that a depressed adolescent should be helped to kill himself. When it comes to the young and the physically healthy, we have no trouble recognizing that choosing suicide is not a "rational" decision, but rather the result of mental-health problems that cry out for treatment.
As Blessed John Paul II wrote in "The Gospel of Life": "Death is considered 'senseless' if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But it becomes a 'rightful liberation' once life is held to be no longer meaningful..."
What is the proper medical response to suffering, in every case? To attempt to alleviate it. Authentic medicine does not eliminate suffering by eliminating the person who suffers. Death is not health. Then how can death be a medical treatment?
Blessed John Paul writes, "True 'compassion' leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."
If all treatment fails, love remains. In Christ, we can suffer with others to the end. He is the Victim who suffers in every victim. When a person we love is in the darkness of suffering, we must sit with that person in the darkness, communicating love by our very presence. Every person lives only on the food of love. Giving poison is not an act of love.
As the bishops of the United States say in their statement, "To Live Each Day with Dignity," laws legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide make a value judgment, establishing a group of people--the elderly, disabled, and sick--whose suicide would be "objectively good or acceptable, unlike the suicide of anyone else." Through such laws, society sends the message that there are people who "may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy."
A Human Doing? Or a Human Being?
As the U.S. bishops note, this bias has its roots in our society's consumerist emphasis on "productivity and autonomy": what we do, rather than who we are.