Protecting the Lives of Critically-Ill Patients
By Alessandro Fanella
A worrying culture of death has been spreading for more than half a century, especially in the West.
By the end of 2021, 777 Coloradoans had asked for prescriptions to end their lives, according to endoflifeoptionscolorado.org. In 2022, the median age of patients prescribed aid-in-dying medication was 74 years, with ages ranging from those in their early thirties to upper nineties. (Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s 2022 Data Summary report). Today, the duty to protect patients’ lives in the most critical stages of sickness has come under question. On the one hand, physicians feel bound by the self-determination expressed in patient declarations that deprive them of their freedom and duty to safeguard life even where they could do so. On the other hand, concerns have recently arisen about the widely-reported abuse of such protocols viewed from an euthanistic perspective.
For these reasons, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 2020 apostolic letter “Samaritanus bonus” (The Good Samaritan), reaffirms that euthanasia is a crime against human life. In this act, one chooses directly to cause the death of another innocent human being. Euthanasia is also a grave violation of the natural law and of the law of God established in the commandment “do not kill” (Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17).
What constitutes euthanasia? In his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II wrote that “Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.” Therefore, both the intention and the methods used must be evaluated.
A person who chooses with full liberty to take their own life commits a serious sin. When a request for euthanasia arises from anguish and despair, it may reduce the person’s culpability but does not change the nature of this act of killing, which will always be in itself something to be rejected. As a result, it is gravely unjust to enact laws that legalize euthanasia or justify invoking the false right to choose a death improperly characterized as “dignified.” Such laws strike at the right to life that sustains all other rights, including the exercise of freedom.
In his address to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2020, Pope Francis recalled that the “current socio-cultural context values human life on the basis of its efficiency and utility, to the point of considering as discarded lives or unworthy lives those who do not meet this criterion.” Using “quality of life” as the dominant criterion leads to accepting the equivocal concept of a “dignified death.” In other words, life is primarily valued in terms of economic means, well-being, and the beauty and enjoyment of physical life while forgetting the other, more profound, interpersonal, spiritual, and religious dimensions of our existence. The inevitable consequence of this view is that a life whose quality is judged to be poor does not deserve to continue, and life is thus no longer recognized as having value in and of itself. It is the triumph of individualism and freedom without responsibility.
What effects has individualism produced in our society? One of its effects is the epidemic of isolation, as shown, for example, in requests for lethal prescriptions at the end of life; suicide via drug overdose; and the ever-increasing use of psychotropic medicine, especially antidepressants. Pope Benedict XVI, encouraging the cooperation of human family, said, “If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved, or from difficulties in being able to love” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 53).
Another factor that prevents us from recognizing the sacredness of life is an erroneous and false understanding of compassion. Usually, in the face of seemingly unbearable suffering, the termination of a patient’s life is justified in the name of compassion. In reality, human compassion consists not of causing death but embracing the sick — supporting them in their difficulties, offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate the suffering.
It is time to assert once again that human beings are not lord over life and death; they do not decide when to be born; they always receive life from someone else as a gift, and death is the decisive moment in the human encounter with God the Savior.
The Catholic Church proposes a life culture that affirms each life has the same value and dignity and the respect for the life of another is the same as the respect owed to one’s own life. Whatever their physical or psychological condition, every life is sacred because every human person always retains their original dignity as created in the divine image of God (Genesis 1:27). We Christians should testify to our faith by offering the sick the help they need to overcome their despair. We are called not only not to kill but also to promote life.
The relationship with the suffering neighbor should be full of attention, listening, understanding, compassion, and discretion. In the face of the legalization of euthanasia, Christians, like all people of goodwill — especially physicians, healthcare workers, and Catholic healthcare institutions — must refuse formal or immediate material cooperation with euthanasia. They must exercise the right of conscientious objection as Christian testimony in an area where “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29) and as a specific contribution to the common good.
There is no right to euthanasia, although many Western governments would have us believe so. Rather, there is a right not to cause death and to protect life. The sick person should be accompanied and cared for with genuine humanity. Only in this way can the patient’s dignity be preserved until the moment of natural death.
(Alessandro Fanella serves as judge in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.)