October is Respect Life Month in the United States. Last Sunday we reflected on how the Eucharist challenges us to defend the dignity of human life, especially those waiting to be born. This week I would like to continue our reflection on our Catholic teaching with regard to respect for life by looking at it from the other end the dying process. The Lord’s vineyard should be a flourishing garden of life, but as we heard in the gospel today it is too often the scene of greed and violence. We are life’s caretakers and defenders; it is our duty to accompany those who are dying with love and compassion.
I think I was in the 7th grade when mom brought my Grandpa Darneal to live the remaining few months of his life with us. He was dying of cancer. My mom took care of Grandpa, washing him, shaving him, spooning him what little food he could keep down. When we came home from his funeral and for days after I remember going to the door of my mom and dad’s bedroom – that is where Grandpa’s bed was – and just standing there. It was like a chapel. There had been a lot of love given and received there.
On October 5, of 2015 Governor Jerry Brown signed a new California law legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Cardinal O’Malley, then chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities called the governor’s decision “a great tragedy for human life. As a result…seriously ill patients suffering from depression and suicidal feelings will receive lethal drugs, instead of genuine care to help alleviate that suffering.”
Sadly, Governor Brown like many others deeply misunderstood the bill he signed into law, showing a distorted sense of mercy and what it means to die with dignity. Dignity is inherent to the human person. It’s built into who we are. No state or stage in life has more dignity than another. Assisted suicide doesn’t offer dignity to those who are terminally ill – they already have it! Legalizing assisted suicide is a direct offense against that dignity, and treats people as if they are disposable. As Pope Francis never tires of saying, there are no disposable people.
Just ten days before the Governor’s action, one of the most eloquent opponents of assisted suicide, Maggie Karner, passed away after living with aggressive brain cancer for a year and a half. A 52-year- old wife and mother of three daughters, Maggie bravely faced her terminal cancer with courage and grace. Shortly before she died Maggie wrote an article for the Respect for Life Program in which she said:
My brain cancer doesn’t define me as a person. But it does give me the opportunity to witness to the fact that every human life has incredible dignity, whether we are infirm or able. And all the while, my family and friends can daily learn the valuable lessons of caring for me in my last days with real compassion and respect. Through their loving care, they affirm what I also know—that my life is, always has been, and always will be, worth living.
One of Maggie’s daughters, Mary, is a registered nurse who is continuing her mother’s legacy of speaking up for the rights of the terminally ill and the beauty of their lives. Upon hearing of Governor Jerry Brown’s decision Mary wrote:
“Terminal illness…stole my mom from me…. But it also gave me something that I could never begin to describe.… [T]he greatest honor of my life was to care for my mom in her last days. Let those fighting illness and disabilities know that they are precious, no matter what. They should never have to feel for a second that they might have a ‘duty to die’ just because the option is available.”
As the U.S. bishops taught us in their pastoral letter, “To Live Each Day with Dignity,” this final stage of life can be a time of deep reflection, forgiveness and reconciliation in the family, and of finding peace with God. Assisted suicide unnaturally cuts that final stage short. It is our duty to stand with those who are sick and dying, and not abandon them to the temptation to suicide. Like the mother of Jesus we must stay with them until the very end.
Credit for this reflection goes to Deirdre A. McQuade who is Assistant Director for Pro-Life Communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.