What is a Suffering Man Worth?

How much is man worth? So asked Pope Francis in a recent letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life on the occasion of the estimable academy’s annual meeting and celebration of its 20th anniversary. The Pope posed the question as he lamented the cultural push to deny the intrinsic worth and dignity of a person when he faces suffering, is disabled, or is elderly.

Recognizing that “[h]ealth is certainly an important value, yet it does not determine a person’s value,” Pope Francis lamented that the lack of health increasingly becomes a justification to exclude and even eliminate persons from fraternal and societal love and care. Even medicine, the healing art, has become the handmaid to such a manifestation of what the Holy Father has been calling the “throw away culture.”

As providence would have it, Pope Francis wrote this letter shortly after Belgium’s lower house of parliament voted 86-44 to legalize euthanasia of children and the elderly suffering from dementia. The Senate had already overwhelmingly passed this disturbing law and King Philippe only days ago caved to pressure and signed the legislation. He did not have the courage to proclaim, by his refusal to sign, that this law rejects two undeniable facts about human existence: 1) After the Fall, suffering is an inevitable aspect of the human condition, and there can, therefore, be no “right” to avoid suffering by taking one’s life prematurely, and 2) We are called to respond to suffering by acts of solidarity with the sufferer, not his elimination.

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A society is measured by its response to the most vulnerable, including those in poor or declining health. Sadly, the United States has not measured up.

The model for laws that permit physician assisted suicide or euthanasia was introduced in the United States when the state of Oregon first legalized Physician Assisted Suicide in 1997. Belgium is following our lead and taking our utilitarian laws to their logical conclusions. But such conclusions are also found on our shores. Consider the words of Ezekiel Emanuel, influencer, if not architect of the end of life provisions of the Affordable Care Act: “Services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.”

And what of those patients with dementia, who are no longer “participating citizens?” Increasingly a physician’s assistance with suicide or euthanasia is considered a medical treatment, an option along the continuum of care that may be provided to a patient if it is deemed to be in his best interest. So it was argued by the pro-euthanasia camp in 2009 in a case brought to the Connecticut courts: “‘Aid in dying’ [a euphemism for assisted suicide] is a recognized term of medical art” and “may, in the professional judgment of a physician, be medically and ethically appropriate course of treatment.”

Suicide is a “medical art” which may be administered when a physician decides such “medical care” is most in keeping with the needs of a patient? I can’t be the only one made uncomfortable by such a claim. The cold logic of those who promote suicide and euthanasia needs an equally forceful response. And Pope Francis has provided it: “[I]n our society one encounters the tyrannical dominion forced upon us by a logic of economics that discounts, excludes, and at times even kills our elderly—and today so many fall victim to this…. The lack of health or the fact of one’s disability are never valid reasons for exclusion or, and what is worse, the elimination of persons.”

I recently had lunch with a dear friend who I had not seen for two years. Her husband has dementia and his declining health has truly taken a toll on both of them. As we spoke, I could not help but marvel at the simple love, compassion, and patience she models as she cares for and sacrifices for her spouse of many years. While it may not be a fairytale ending, I could hardly think of anything more beautiful than a faithful wife, accompanying and loving her husband, in sickness and health. What a beautiful witness she is.

Every person facing declining health such as one who suffers from dementia is owed a loving presence, a warm embrace, and tender love. “The gravest deprivation experienced by the aged” Pope Francis teaches, “is the abandonment, exclusion and deprivation of love.”

The people of Belgium, and the United States would do well to recognize that no matter the euphemism employed, assisting someone to take their life is and will always be a blatant act of abandonment and exclusion that deprives vulnerable persons of love. A compassionate society will reject such false solutions and will ensure that medicine is placed at the service of the life and integral good of each person.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock.)


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