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"Denied" a Dignified Death?

In a recent article published in the New Zealand Herald, “NZ euthanasia laws: Taupō woman with degenerative disease denied dignified death by terminal illness rules” the argument was made that the criteria of being expected to live 6 months or less in order to access assisted dying is unfair and needs to be changed. The architect of the law, David Seymour, had admitted that he never supported the 6-month criteria but that “The limit was put in place ““purely as a political compromise because there were some people unwilling to vote for it in the original form””.

The article makes clear that the accepted writing of the law was never intended to remain ‘as is’ with what many consider to be safety nets for the most vulnerable, but was placed firmly and intentionally on the brink of a slippery slope.

The article speaks of a woman who suffers from Ehler-Danlos syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is “a group of inherited disorders that affect your connective tissues — primarily your skin, joints and blood vessel walls.” The ill woman in the New Zealand article spoke of suffering painful joint dislocations and numerous other complications caused by the disease. Clearly, she is suffering and has been for a long time. In her mind, death is preferable to life. She speaks of feeling trapped in her situation and that “Just having the option of an assisted death would be a huge relief.” Her sufferings should be recognized and acknowledged.

The ill woman also concedes the resistance to the Assisted Dying bill and assumes that it is “in regards to religion.” In this, she is not totally correct. The staunchest resistance to the Assisted Dying legislation does tend to come from faith-based persons and organizations, but not for the reasons she may imagine. What we stand for and defend is the undeniable truth that human life, all human life, is a gift vested with the highest dignity. The presence of suffering does not, in any way, make a person less human and less a partaker in the dignity and beauty of life. On the contrary, suffering is a call for those who partake in it and for those who assist others, to participate in the highest expression of self-giving, which is love.

In the Church document Samaritanus Bonus on Assisted dying and euthanasia we read: “Experience confirms that “the pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love. What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which sick persons can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses”. A sick person, surrounded by a loving human and Christian presence, can overcome all forms of depression and need not succumb to the anguish of loneliness and abandonment to suffering and death.”

The document continues: “One experiences pain not just as a biological fact to be managed in order to make it bearable, but as the mystery of human vulnerability in the face of the end of physical life—a difficult event to endure, given that the unity of the body and the soul is essential to the human person.

Therefore, the “end of life”, inevitably presaged by pain and suffering, can be faced with dignity only by the re-signification of the event of death itself—by opening it to the horizon of eternal life and affirming the transcendent destiny of each person. In fact, ““suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex, and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself””. With the help of grace this suffering can, like the suffering of Christ on the Cross, be animated from within with divine charity.”

The call to a “dignified” death through Assisted dying is misleading. A death with dignity is one in which the suffering person experiences the loving and abiding presence of others, who become for them a “Presence full of hope.” The suffering person in turn returns hope for hope and love for love by allowing themselves to be cared for and cared about until the unknown time when the sacred moment of natural death finally occurs.

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