Thursday, February 08, 2007

Clearing the Deck on Euthanasia

It seems that here and in Italy and just about everywhere the euthanasia "debate" is up and running once again. Here in Australia, Greens Senator Bob Brown has just introduced a bill for euthanasia into the Senate. And in Italy cardinals and politicians are still spatting over the Welby case. It is precisely on issues like this that we need very clear "natural law" argumentation (see my previous blog).

The Australian debate has been amply assisted in the right direction by none other than that infamous rag "The Age" in excellent articles by Juliette Hughes and Odette Spruyt.

In Italy the problem has been exacerbated by Cardinal Martini putting his oar in where it's neither wanted nor helpful. Cardinal Ruini made the only decision he could in the truly difficult case of Piergiorgio Welby. Welby was on life support. Without this life support he would (and did) die. Too many people (including Cardinal Martini) are confusing the Welby case with the situation where a patient opts to refuse over burdensome extraordinary mechanical treatment, where the treatment is disproportionate to the outcome that can be reasonably expected.

The fact is (as Cardinal Ruini has quite simply and accurately identified) Welby's desire and intention was not merely to end burdensome treatment, but actually to end his life. Cardinal Ruini refused the request of Welby's family for a church funeral because "Mr. Welby repeatedly and publicly affirmed his desire to end his life, something that is incompatible with Catholic doctrine".

This emphasis upon intention is well maintained in an essay just published by Fr Michael Whelan of the Aquinas Academy entitled "Euthanasia: Some Questions and Issues Arising." In this essay--which is a fine example of arguing completely from the basis of reason and natural law without any reference whatsoever to revealed law--Whelan maintains that:
to withhold extraordinary mechanical means, without which someone will die–for example, when a person is in a vegetative state with no realistic hope of that changing--it may be morally acceptable to turn off the machines that are keeping that person alive; that is not euthanasia;
He appears to be agreeing with Martini at this point, but then he makes a distinction which Martini fails to make, the very distinction upon which Ruini based his decision:
the critical question to ask is, “What is intended?” If you intend to kill the individual that is an essentially different moral act to one in which the intention is not to kill the individual but to ease the individual’s distress or avoid unnecessary and/or undignified processes to eke out a few more months of life. (Needless to say, the intention to kill should not be masked by protestations that what you are doing is simply to ease the person’s distress or carrying out “what Grandma would want”. If you intend to kill you intend to kill, no matter how you disguise it.)
This short paper is worth reading in depth, and would be a good basis for the study of the issue in parishes. Note however that Fr Whelan's paper can in no sense be called a "Bible study" for the reason I have a ready stated: it doesn't refer to a single Bible verse. Nevertheless I believe the conclusion it comes to is one which is entirely Godly, entirely virtuous, and entirely Christian. It is the type of clear thinking that Christians have to learn to display in public discourse if we are to head Bob Brown's euthanasia bill off at the pass.

4 Comments:

At Thursday, February 08, 2007 7:19:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

I think we need to tread very carefully here.

Cardinal Ruini may have read more of Welby’s writings than I have but, from what I have read, it’s not at all clear that Welby wanted “to end his life”.

On the contrary, he asserted that he loved life, and that he found the idea of dying horrible. But he no longer wished to live on the only terms on which he could live. And, it is clear, the reason the conditions of his life were intolerable to him, are in large part the intrusive medical treatments which are necessary to sustain his life – the hole in his stomach (for nutrition), the hole in his oesephagus (for respiration), the catheters, the cleasing of trachial secretions, the battery of drugs, the montors, the alarms, the artificial bowel evacuation and the exhausting and debllitating effect which all this has on him. The problem was not his muscular dystrophy; he had lived with that for years.

In summary, it was not that Welby wished to die; it was that he no longer wished to live, given that the interventions needed to sustain his life were burdensome and ultimately futile.

In other words, it seems to me, he wantedto “to ease [his own] distress or avoid unnecessary and/or undignified processes to eke out a few more months of life”, even though he knew that to discontinue those treatments would lead in short order to his death – exactly the circumstance that Fr Whelan identifies as not euthanasia.

Welby doesn’t help his case by repeatedly describing what he wants as “euthanasia”. But here, I think, he illustrates Fr Whelan’s point that many people do not use the term “euthanasia” in the sense in which Catholic moralists use it.

I think Welby did want the legalisataion of euthanasia in the proper sense – he points to the Netherlands and Switzerland as examples of what sees as appropriate legislation. But it seems to me that what Welby wanted (and got) for himself was not euthanasia, and in fact it could have been done in almost any country in Europe (or in Australia), including countries that are not generally regarded as having legalised euthanasia. The Italian laws on this are the exception rather than the norm.

From reports, the diocesan decision to deny him a liturgical funeral was not based on the circumstances of his own death, but on the campaign he had waged for the legalisation of euthanasia. And, of course, he did campaign for the legalisation of euthanasia in the proper sense. But I don’t think his own death was a case of euthanasia.

 
At Friday, February 09, 2007 10:29:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

I don't know how "carefully" we have to tread here. Nor do I know who we might offend by speaking openly. The Cardinal clearly refused the funeral because (as he explained in his own words) "Mr. Welby repeatedly and publicly affirmed his desire to end his life", a desire which put him at odds with the essential witness of the Church.

I personally am not party to any more accurate information than the Cardinal. Nor am I passing judgment on Welby.

I am simply saying, in agreement with Whelan, that the removal of lfie support or medication (extraordinary or otherwise) with the intention of causing death is not only contrary to the teachings of the Church, but also completely against the dictates of reason and the natural law.

 
At Friday, February 09, 2007 11:29:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

I don't know how "carefully" we have to tread here. Nor do I know who we might offend by speaking openly. The Cardinal clearly refused the funeral because (as he explained in his own words) "Mr. Welby repeatedly and publicly affirmed his desire to end his life", a desire which put him at odds with the essential witness of the Church.

My point is that Cardinal’s Ruini’s characterisation of Welby’s position may not be accurate. Certainly, it is difficult to reconcile with what I have read of Welby’s writings. (It is, of course, possible that Welby’s position changed over time.)

And we have to be ‘careful’ precisely because Michael Whelan points out that there is a good degree of confusion in this area, with many people failing to grasp the moral principles involved or to understand the application of those principles. Outside of Italy, the manner of Welby’s death achieved far more publicity than the campaign he participated in while alive, and much of the commentary in the English-speaking world has proceeded on the assumption that the diocese’s attitude to his funeral was a response to the circumstances of his death. And, since the manner of his death may not have infringed Catholic moral teaching, that could obviously create a substantial misprepresentation of the Catholic position.

I am simply saying, in agreement with Whelan, that the removal of lfie support or medication (extraordinary or otherwise) with the intention of causing death is not only contrary to the teachings of the Church, but also completely against the dictates of reason and the natural law.

Oh, I completely agree with that. I’m just pointing out that that characterisation doesn’t necessarily describe Welby’s death.

 
At Friday, February 09, 2007 2:44:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Fair enough.

 

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