Last Friday, Pope Francis addressed members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who had gathered in Rome to reflect on euthanasia. The Pope noted that many Westerners now regard the “voluntary interruption of human existence [as] a choice of ‘civilisation’”. The “civilised” supporters of euthanasia regard the Church’s condemnation of the practice in all circumstances as naïve – or even cruel. And Catholics are no longer able to appeal to a shared understanding of human worth. “Where life is valid not for its dignity, but for its efficiency and productivity,” Francis said, “[euthanasia] becomes possible. In this scenario it must be reiterated that human life, from conception to its natural end, has a dignity that renders it inviolable.”
Euthanasia – where a doctor directly ends a patient’s life – is not new. It was practised in ancient Greece (with the support of Socrates and Plato) and ancient Rome. But its legalisation across the developed world is relatively recent. The Netherlands became the first country to introduce it in 2002, followed closely by Belgium. They were later joined by Colombia, Luxembourg and Canada. Assisted suicide – where a patient takes their own life with a doctor’s aid – is legal in Switzerland, Germany and a handful of US states.
The Church has had a strong presence in most countries that have legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide and has contributed significantly to local healthcare systems. This presents acute dilemmas: how can the Church protect its institutions from the incursion of an alien ideology? How does it prevent palliative care from being corrupted? And how should it treat suffering Catholics who opt for euthanasia? The situation is fast-moving and the Church is struggling to catch up.
In Belgium, for example, palliative care specialists are reportedly resigning because their job is increasingly being reduced to preparing “patients and their families for lethal injections”. According to Professor Benoit Beuselinck, consultant oncologist at the Catholic University Hospitals of Leuven, palliative care units are being turned into “houses of euthanasia”.
The Vatican is currently locked in conflict with board members of the Belgian Organisation of the Brothers of Charity, a body connected to a religious order specialising in psychiatric care. Board members allow euthanasia to be practised on patients in Brothers of Charity homes, in brazen defiance of Church teaching.
Meanwhile, the Canadian bishops seem at odds over Catholics seeking euthanasia. One bloc, the bishops of Atlantic Canada, argued in 2016 that priests should have wide latitude, in the name of “pastoral accompaniment”, to give the sacraments to those committed to undergoing euthanasia. The bishops of Alberta, in contrast, insisted that priests must clearly inform sufferers that euthanasia is a gravely sinful act and can withhold the Sacrament of the Sick if the patient remains “obstinate”.
Given these high-profile disagreements, the Vatican urgently needs to offer guidance to Catholics in the world’s euthanasia hotspots. It is good that, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, our greatest ethical minds are grappling with these questions. We hope they will share their conclusions as swiftly as possible. Even those of us who live in jurisdictions where euthanasia is presently illegal should take note: one day these dilemmas might not be simply theoretical.
Life is not a ‘grey area’
It is now clear that both the Irish prime minister and the leader of the opposition will be campaigning for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, and for the introduction of a law which would allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Opinion polls suggest that if a vote were to be taken today, the repeal would pass.
Catholics on both sides of the Irish Channel will be deeply discouraged by this news. They may well assume that, given the Irish establishment’s backing for repeal, the battle for the rights of the unborn, and the right to life, is already lost. But this would be the wrong conclusion.
Leo Varadkar’s words, in an interview with the BBC in Davos, reveal the weakness of the repeal campaign, in that he was unable to give any concrete argument for his position. He said: “These terms pro-life and pro-choice don’t really comprehend the complexity of this issue, which is a very private and personal one and one I think that contains a lot of grey areas.”
Mr Varadkar is a clever man and medically qualified, yet he takes refuge in cliché when confronted with the issue of abortion. It is against this form of waffle that the pro-life campaign must take up arms, reminding everyone – in persuasive, secular terms – of the clear issues that are at stake. No one should be allowed to decide when someone else’s life should be sacrificed. There is nothing grey about that. Any talk of rights is reduced to nonsense unless the right to life is guaranteed.
Finally, would Mr Varadkar like to tell us what the foundation of his rights are, or would that be another grey area?
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