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Physician Assisted Suicide and the Challenge to all Christians

Last weekend, I was privileged to participate in a training program for volunteers to work with cancer patients. One of the trainers, a wonderful woman I have known for almost twenty years, was sharing her story with the group. I have heard her story many times, but somehow this time I heard it with different ears. This time I heard it against the backdrop of the November ballot initiative to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

My friend, whom I will call Maura, was a young mom with a toddler at home when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through all her treatments, and came out the other side of the tunnel. Life goes on, and she became pregnant again. But now she developed a worrisome pain, a pain that just wouldn't go away. Eventually, she found out that her cancer had metasticized into her bones. Her doctors told her to go home and get her affairs in order, that she wouldn't live another six months. That was twenty years ago. In the last twenty years, Maura has gone on to live a life full of family, career and friends.

Pope John Paul II and our bishops have all presented the case against assisted suicide very clearly and logically. The intellectual arguments are very clear. But there is another dimension to this fight, another aspect of this battle between the culture of life and the culture of death. Not so very intellectual, but, oh, so very messy, is the human side of the equation. And until each of us understands our own humanity, we won't be able to understand the attraction of assisted suicide.

What happens when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness? How do you feel? Isolated, alone, frightened, betrayed, lonely, and spinning out of control. Suddenly, the Contact list is filled with doctors, medical techs, nutritionists and nurses, rather than friends and associates. Suddenly, the calendar on the kitchen wall is filled with doctor appointments, tests, hospital visits, instead of lunch or dinner dates. And then, just as suddenly, the tests stop, the doctor appointments pretty much stop, and you are told to "get your affairs in order." The fight is over, it will soon be time to call Hospice. Your friends look at you differently, or they don't look at you at all. Your family is whispering in another room all the time. And there you are, still isolated, still alone, still frightened, still feeling betrayed, still lonely and now spinning way, way out of control. No wonder some compassionate stranger wants to let you take a pill.

Because that is what so many of these "culture of death" people are: truly compassionate people. They want you to die rather than suffer. I suspect that there is many a former caregiver in the group that supports this initiative. I'll not judge people who watched helplessly while their nearest and dearest slowly died, and who now are trying to spare others that experience. But I will say that I believe they have come to the wrong answer. Motivation aside, they are misunderstanding the human person on a very basic level. God has put the desire to live deep into the heart of every person. It's part of being human. The terminally ill patient does not need help to die; they need help to live until they die.

The terminal patient needs to feel loved and accepted, even in their present condition. That person needs to know that they are not isolated, not abandoned, not alone. That it is OK to feel out of control, that all those feelings are part of the normal human experience. Above all, a patient needs to know that they are not defined by their disease. A patient is not "John, who is dying of cancer" but rather "John, husband, father, friend, co-worker" who unfortunately happens to have an incurable cancer.

Our God tells us that each human person is intrinsically immeasurably valuable. Our God challenges us every day to carry that truth into a world that just can't understand it. No matter. Carry that truth out there anyway. Visit the sick. Talk with them, listen to them. Swap books with them if they are well enough to read. Bring books on tape if they aren't. Offer to spell a caregiver so they can have some time off. Take a caregiver out for lunch. Be aware of which folks on your street could use a hot meal all prepared for them every once in a while. Or who might need a hand with housework or yard work. Just be there for whoever needs you. Show your Christian compassion by helping people to live until they die.


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