While Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that “we could start getting things back to relative normal” by next spring or summer if enough people get vaccinated, some aspects of “normal” probably will not survive. One of these are the political and moral arguments against a legal right to physician-assisted suicide.
Then-California governor Jerry Brown summed up the argument for legalizing physician-assisted suicide. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he said when he signed the state’s physician-assisted suicide law. He called the ability “to consider the options” the law afforded a “comfort.”
The case against PAS, at least the Catholic one, consists of a proscription and a promise. The problem is that, as our response to COVID-19 strongly suggests, the promise is not likely to be kept. And without the promise, the proscription will be depicted and interpreted as an inhumane and moralistic imposition.
The proscription is that PAS is a violation of the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person. It does not deny the suffering of the dying but insists that the value of human life is not dependent on our ability to be productive and autonomous and is not diminished by our dependence on others.
But the Catholic argument against PAS doesn’t stop there. It also promises the person facing the end of her life that she will not have to endure her suffering alone.
The American Catholic bishops’ statementTo Live Each Day With Dignity describes what it calls “a better way.” This “better way” is characterized by “a readiness to surround patients with love, support, and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering.”
Without this “better way,” the argument against PAS amounts to “suck it up.” It makes the false compassion and comfort of lethal medication appear, if not attractive, at least the lesser of the two evils on offer.
So, how realistic is this “better way?” Based on our response to COVID-19, the answer is “not very.” The death toll from COVID-19 has become what Stalin might have dubbed a “statistic,” and blinded us to the human toll of the ongoing catastrophe.
Let’s start with the basics: COVID-19 is a terrible way to die. Its victims die alone and in pain. This terrible way to die is overwhelmingly concentrated among the vulnerable and marginalized, such as the elderly and the disabled.
Eighty percent of Americans who have died from the coronavirus were 65 years and older. Sixty percent were 75 years and older. The latter group comprises only 6 percent of the population. As Charles Camosy recently documented, COVID-19 has turned nursing homes and other long-term care facilities into charnel houses where deaths from all causes on are the rise.
It’s not only the elderly. Prison inmates “have been infected at a rate that is more than four times higher than that of the general population.” A recent Oxford study found that “adults with Down syndrome are at almost five times the risk for COVID-19–related hospitalization and 10 times the risk for related death.”
The expression that comes to mind when reading about the impact of the coronavirus on the elderly, disabled and marginalized is “culling the herd.” Judging by our collective response, our society is, at best, indifferent to this culling. Initial attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus quickly prompted a farrago of idiocy, in both its original and contemporary sense, and entitlement.
Older Americans were told that they should be willing to risk dying because “there are more important things than living,” such as saving the economy. At the very least, vulnerable populations should be willing to remain in isolation while the rest of us resumed normal life as normal, as if such isolation were feasible, never mind just or desirable.
Wearing masks became an issue of personal freedom and not regard for the wellbeing of others. By way of justifying this indifference to the culling, Americans embraced outlandish conspiracy theories about the origins and nature of COVID-19.
Not all Americans, of course, resisted measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But a lot of them, including many soi-disant pro-life Catholics and other Christians, did. One called the measures “disastrous sentimentalism” and told us that “there are many things more precious than life,” presumably including their own. (Or not.) Another, less sophisticated, Catholic pro-lifer called on people to reject wearing masks so as to build up “herd immunity,” which not only is inhumane — it would result in millions of deaths — but wouldn’t even work.
This resistance to containing COVID-19, coupled with what could be called “COVID fatigue” among the rest of us, renders the promise of a “better way” hollow. To put it bluntly, our response to the coronavirus proves that the kind of solidarity described in the “better way” is, at best, an aspiration, and more likely a pipe dream. It’s not anything that a person, faced with the possibility of “dying in prolonged and excruciating pain” should count on.
That makes PAS advocates’ job much easier. They can and will point to our willingness to allow hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans to die in agony as evidence that the only good deaths, “euthanasia” in Greek, are the ones we choose. They will be able to claim a moral high ground that their ersatz compassion, which replaces love, support, and companionship with a prescription, doesn’t warrant.
They can leverage our natural aversion to suffering with this indisputable evidence of our indifference to other people’s suffering.
While the moral and theological case against legalizing PAS remains strong, our collective failures during the pandemic have — sardonic pun not intended — fatally wounded the political argument. These failures have left us without a credible alternative to the false compassion offered by physician-assisted suicide. As a Catholic, I pray that, confronted with a painful death, I would have the grace to allow my suffering to fill up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1).
But a polity cannot demand that all of its members exercise heroic virtue. Instead, it must ask them to exercise ordinary virtue and make that exercise possible.
We failed to do this. Instead, we sent the unmistakable message: “You’re on your own. I got my own. Your pain is your pain.” We shouldn’t be surprised that, having seen that true compassion isn’t on offer, many of the suffering will settle for the false variety.
Roberto Rivera has written for First Things, Touchstone, and Sojourners. He worked with the late Charles Colson as a principal writer for two decades. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his son, David.
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