July 10, 2015


Take a look inside ‘the waiting room’ at the issue of doctor-assisted suicide

Dale Francis was one of the most prominent Catholic journalists of the 20th century, so well thought of that he was the first recipient of the Catholic Press Association’s St. Francis de Sales Award for “outstanding contributions to Catholic journalism.”

About 50 year ago, he wrote a fictional piece called “The Waiting Room 2050 A.D.,” about a married couple waiting for an interview that would decide whether they would be permitted to live another five years. It has been reprinted frequently since Dale first wrote it. (You can read the story by Googling “The Waiting Room 2050.”)

We thought about that story when we saw the cover of the June 27-July 3 issue of The Economist. With a photo of an extinguished candle, it proclaims: “The right to die: Why assisted suicide should be legal.” Inside, it has a five-page briefing on doctor-assisted dying plus an editorial that asserts that “doctors should be allowed to help the suffering and terminally ill to die when they choose.”

This is the next step, we thought, toward that scenario in Dale’s story in which government officials decided whether people were productive enough in society to allow them to continue to live for another five years. The intermediate step would be euthanasia.

Doctor-assisted suicide appears to be the next campaign in our society to make sure that traditional morality doesn’t interfere with what secularism considers our ideal society. There was a time when adultery was against the law, and anti-sodomy laws existed until 2003. Divorce used to be difficult, but not anymore. Cohabitation, and especially having children out of wedlock, was a complete no-no, but society now accepts both.

So now it’s doctor-assisted suicide, which is currently legal in four states (Oregon, Montana, Washington and Vermont), although California’s Senate approved a bill on June 4 to legalize it there. However, bills and legal cases are in progress in about 20 American states, to say nothing about Canada, Europe and South Africa.

In preparing its briefing, The Economist commissioned a poll of people in 15 countries on whether they thought assisted-suicide should be legalized. In all 15 countries except Poland and Russia, majorities said that it should be legalized for terminally ill adults. In the United States, more than three-fifths support the idea, according to the poll.

Further, in 11 of the 15 countries surveyed, most people favor extending doctor-assisted dying to patients who are in great physical suffering but not close to death.

We don’t doubt the facts and statistics in The Economist’s briefing. That’s what makes it so appalling.

In its editorial, The Economist admitted that the idea of doctor-assisted suicide “fills its critics with dismay. For some, the argument is moral and absolute. Deliberately ending a human life is wrong, because life is sacred and the endurance of suffering confers its own dignity.” Yes. That sums up the Catholic Church’s teaching on the issue fairly well.

There’s also this, according to the editorial: “For others, the legalization of doctor-assisted dying is the first step on a slippery slope where the vulnerable are threatened and where premature death becomes a cheap alternative to palliative care.” Yes again. When elderly and ill people realize how expensive their care is, there’s undoubtedly a tendency to think that it would be better for their families if they were dead.

But the editorial, while saying that these views should be taken seriously, rejects them: “In a secular society, it is odd to buttress the sanctity of life in the abstract by subjecting a lot of particular lives to unbearable pain, misery and suffering.”

Of course that’s the view of “secular society.” And that’s where the Catholic Church diverges from secular society. It wants to relieve the “unbearable pain, misery and suffering” to the greatest extent possible, but not through killing, whether done by a doctor alone or by the patient assisted by a doctor.

As our population continues to age, end-of-life issues will be more prominent in coming years. We can only hope that the scenario in Dale Francis’ story remains a piece of fiction, but he could see, already 50 years ago, what was on the horizon.

—John F. Fink

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