On Aug. 1, 2019, the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act came into effect in New Jersey. This new law allows New Jersey residents, who are 18 or older and considered mentally competent, to ask for and receive assistance from doctors to end their lives if they are terminally ill and have only six months or less to live. Although the law uses the term “medical aid in dying,” this is nothing less than state government sanctioned physician assisted suicide, a form of euthanasia.
Euthanasia, often referred to as “mercy killing,” is the intentional act of bringing about the death of a person who is physically suffering. Saint John Paul II stated that euthanasia is a grave offense against the law of God (Evangelium Vitae 65) which is not only known through revelation, but also through the natural law, that is, written in the hearts of human beings. It cannot be changed by any man-made law.
Our Church’s objections to this law, and euthanasia, are not just born out of a concern for Catholics, but for all people. The permission this law gives to commit such acts will surely lessen human dignity because it corrupts the inherent dignity of human life. An autonomous judgement concerning whose life is worthy of living and whose is not will always affect the judgement of other persons concerning human dignity.
The law gives the impression that it is motivated by compassion for those who are terminally ill, with six months or less to live. We often hear that it is an attempt to lessen their sufferings, promising dignity in their death, while preventing them from being a burden, especially financially, to others. This reasoning is faulty. Pain relief and pain management are readily available as is excellent palliative care through hospice programs which affirm the dignity of each human person no matter their physical condition.
It is questionable that the restrictions placed in the act will not be expanded. For, how can compassion be restricted? Why only those terminally ill with six months to live? Why not those with a year or more? Why limit such sufferings to that of physical illness? Why not other types of suffering, such as that which results from mental illness or depression? What about suffering as a result of substance abuse and addiction? This act is just the beginning of euthanasia either being accepted as a fundamental human and civil right, regardless of the state of health of the person requesting it or, as a state-mandated action for those whose lives are not judged worthy.
The permission for the use of euthanasia will have far reaching influence on our society. This act gives credence to the misunderstanding that some lives have no value, and therefore can be terminated. It has the potential of misleading people to believe that they have a life not worth living.
It will also have an effect on healthcare providers. Over time, they will grow cold and indifferent to the sufferings of their patients, contributing to the patients understanding of unworthiness. Some healthcare providers will choose to either leave the profession or violate their consciences. Doctors and nurses entered their profession to alleviate suffering and preserve life, not to destroy it. Yet, this act encourages them to do just that.
The response to suffering and terminal illness is not euthanasia. Rather, the response is compassion, an expression of true mercy. Such compassion helps to alleviate suffering by accompanying the person and their family. Compassion allows those who suffer to know they are loved and that their lives have a priceless value. Compassion helps those who suffer to better understand suffering and death, while allowing them the ability to have a truly dignified death; one naturally happening, not forced, as if life has no meaning, or simply can be tossed away.
In a nation as rich and compassionate as ours, there is no reason for euthanasia to exist. We have the capacity to mercifully provide for the infirm and terminally ill of any age through palliative care and hospice. However, even beyond the physical mercy of palliative care and hospice, acts of compassion help to alleviate suffering through accompanying the person and their family on this journey. Using technology, medicines and compassion, we can care for those who suffer or whose mobility is no longer available to them. Even in distress, God’s beloved creations have inherent and unfaltering worth — deserving of our best efforts to bring them life’s comfort.
It is important that we, whose faith has confirmed what we know by reason of natural law, continue to work to influence our society with the truth concerning human dignity in order to create a society filled with mercy, justice and peace.