Helen Weir
A homily well worth hearing
By Helen Weir
February 6, 2010

"There's a big difference" — as Miracle Max of Princess Bride fame once sagely observed — "between mostly dead and all dead." Where the question of Obamacare is concerned, it is well for us to recall that "mostly dead is slightly alive."

Lest this anti-life and anti-American legislative monstrosity should again rear its ugly head, we must all be vigilant. Now, I do not count myself among those rejoicing at the election of the pro-abortion Scott Brown to what was formerly Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate. If anything illustrates the self-defeating and intrinsically flawed nature of the mainstream pro-life movement as defined by National Right to Life and its "lesser of two evils" ideological cohorts, such misplaced jubilation is it. Still, we must be grateful for the respite that Brown's upset victory has provided us, on the issue of health care at least. If a friend is standing with his toes hanging off a ledge, the first thing to do, quite definitely, is to talk him down from the ledge.

After that, however, unless deeper problems are thoroughly addressed, the ledge will beckon again. The sociopolitical issues which the momentarily-averted crisis of Obamacare have brought to the surface of our common life are many. That is why it was exhilarating, not to mention informative, to hear, two Sundays ago, a soundly-researched and unflinchingly-presented homily on the dangers of euthanasia hidden in the Obamacare scenario. The homilist was Rev. Joseph Redfern, the Parochial Administrator of St. Mary's Parish in Altoona, Wisconsin. The full text of Father Redfern's homily can be found on the parish website: www.stmary-altoona.com ("Third Sunday in Ordinary Time," under the link "Father Redfern's homilies"). I will, with Father's permission, reproduce significant portions of his remarks right here:

    In view of recent discussions on the proposed changes to health care in this country, I would like to focus on the issue of euthanasia.

    Euthanasia [1]

    The word euthanasia comes from the Greek word euthanatos, meaning a "good death" or an "easy death." It has come to mean "mercy killing": the direct killing of a patient, usually by a doctor, to end suffering. Especially after Nazi Germany used the word to describe its killing program for the disabled and mentally ill, euthanasia has come to mean the killing of sick and dying people for any reason, including the most ignoble.

    In theological terms, euthanasia is "an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated" (CDF, Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980). Like all direct killing of the innocent, euthanasia violates God's Law and is gravely wrong. Pope John Paul II solemnly stated that "euthanasia is a grave and morally unacceptable killing of the human person" and declared that "this doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, [and] is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" (Evangelium vitae, 65).

    Why Is Euthanasia Wrong?

    The fact that a person is already dying of natural causes in no way justifies a human decision directly to attack the basic good of human life. The dying patient is still a person of incomparable worth, made in the image and likeness of God; no one may usurp God's dominion over this person's life by intentionally causing death. Nor is an act of euthanasia justified by the suffering a patient may face during illness. Suffering may place the patient and others under such duress that their judgment is impaired and their personal guilt greatly reduced; but, objectively, the act of killing is a grave evil.

    Euthanasia is sometimes proposed in the name of mercy and compassion by those closest to the suffering patient: his or her family and physician. But this is false mercy, because it intends the destruction of a helpless person who is in special need of love and encouragement. Today, proposals for euthanasia are not confined to cases of terminal illness, and the motives behind them may lack any semblance of compassion. Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (n. 15) states:

      As well as reasons of a misguided pity at the sight of the patient's suffering, euthanasia is sometimes [thought to be] justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill.

    Health Care Reform

    There are increasing pressures in society to let euthanasia creep into our health care system. When we consider the number of elderly, especially with the aging baby boomer generation, our health system will be under ever-increasing pressure in the years to come. Developments in medical technology have enabled doctors to keep patients alive for longer. How are we to take care of all these people? Recent health reform bills have tried to address the fact that there will [be] so many people to take care of and so little money being generated by the younger members of society.

    The Catholic Bishops' Conference wrote numerous letters to Congress in 2009, reaffirming the Church's strong support for expanding access to health care in ways that respect the life, dignity, health and consciences of all. The bishops have repeatedly cited three specific moral criteria for acceptable reform of health legislation in this country: affordability of health coverage, especially for those most in need; fairness to immigrants regarding access to health care, and; respect for human life from conception until natural death.

    The Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, which is a part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, produced a document entitled "Issues of Life and Conscience in Health Care Reform: A Comparison of the House and Senate Bills." [2] This document, dated January 20, 2010, provides a commentary on various issues, including . . . end-of-life issues and assisted suicide. . . . The USCCB expressed some concerns they have with the current proposed health care reforms: 1) the federal government that funds Medicare could be said to have mixed motives for promoting documents that may limit the provision of life-sustaining treatment; and 2) questions arise as to whether discussions and documents could be sued to present and promote physician-assisted suicide as a valid end-of-life option, particularly in states that have legalized the practice.

    There are a lot of complications regarding the two health care reform bills from the House of Representatives and the Senate. One example will suffice to show how complicated things can get:

    The House of Representatives' bill has two provisions promoting wider discussion and use of advance directives. One of these requires entities such as insurance companies that offer qualified health benefit plans to disseminate information on "end-of-life planning," including advance directives, to individuals seeking to enroll in their plans. House Bill section 240 states that the decision whether to sign a directive must be completely voluntary, and that information provided "shall not presume the withdrawal of treatment" but must include information on options to "maintain all or most medical interventions." The provision states twice that this effort must not "promote suicide, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing."

    The last terms used are not defined. A concern had been raised as to how this requirement would be implemented in states whose laws define the provision of lethal drugs to terminally ill patients by physicians as not constituting "assisted suicide." [3]

    The House provision provides a confusing answer to this question, stating that "advance directives and other planning tools" may not include options for assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing, "regardless of legality." On the other hand, the general mandate is to provide such documents "according to the laws of the State in which the individual resides." Moreover, the section's final clause states that nothing in this provision may be construed to "preempt or otherwise have any effect on State laws regarding advance care planning, palliative care, or end-of-life decision-making."

    Unfortunately, one way to read this set of seemingly conflicting provisions would be to say that assisted suicide may not be promoted — unless it is a settled matter in the state's law that what it allows is not to be considered assisted suicide.

    My brothers and sisters in Christ, our country is facing health care reforms that may contain, among other things, direct taxpayer-funded promotion of assisted suicide in the states in which it is currently legal.

    We pray that, if there is to be health reform in this country, it will protect the life, dignity, and consciences of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

    May we be advocates of the Gospel of Life and do all in our power to promote the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.


[1]  See "EUTHANASIA" in Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, ed. Russell Shaw, pp. 209-14.

[3]  Physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients has been legal in Oregon since 1994. Physicians there may prescribe a deliberately lethal dose of medication for patients who are expected to live less than six months and who follow certain consent procedures. In 2008, Washington approved a similar law by public referendum. Both laws state that the practice they allow will not constitute an assisted suicide for legal purposes. And in December 2009 the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the state's law against assisting a suicide does not forbid physicians from providing deliberately lethal drugs to such patients.

© Helen Weir


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