Last month the governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed into law a bill promoting physician-assisted suicide. Based on a similar measure in Oregon, the law allows doctors to prescribe medication to end a patient’s life.
This recent legislation was introduced over the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old brain cancer patient, who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s assisted suicide law and subsequently died there. California is the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide after Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont.
Leading the opposition to the measure was Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles who said, “people suffering from terminal illness deserve true compassion and care — not violence.” He went on to describe how assisted suicide only offers a type of “hollow compassion.”
For Christians, followers of Christ, the beautiful truth is that every human life matters because every life is sacred and created by the God. Catholicism is deeply identified with human life. What other religion remembers the time when its founder was in his mother’s womb? Think about God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Pope Francis brought this same pro-life message to the United States when he urged the members of Congress to “defend life at every stage of development.”
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of great indifference and injustice based on our confusion about the meaning of creation and human life. In a society without God human life has no meaning. Often the value of human life is merely judged on one’s productivity. So as Christians we are called to rediscover the sanctity of life and the dignity of every human person, who is created in the image and likeness of God.
The fundamental injustice in our society is the killing of innocent children through abortion and the killing of the sick and defenseless through euthanasia and assisted suicide. If a child in the womb has no right to be born, if the sick and the elderly have no right to be taken care of, then there is no reason to defend anyone’s human rights.
Helping one to die is still killing. In fact, Archbishop Gomez reiterated that in supporting this legislation we are responding to the needs of our neighbors “with indifference, with the cold comfort of death.” In rebuttal, the archbishop proposed that we have an honest, public conversation about these issues and what they mean for how we provide health care for all people.
This new legislation has dangerous implications especially for the poor and the vulnerable. Archbishop Gomez warned that the assisted suicide bill is “pushing us into a quick-fix solution” that involves getting rid of people in our “throw-away culture,” but especially those whom we find too difficult, too burdensome or even too expensive to provide health care. These concerns will create terrible pressure on the poor, the elderly, the handicapped, the immigrants and even minorities. In Oregon after the passing of this legislation there was an overall 50 percent increase in doctor-assisted suicide.
At St. Charles Borromeo Seminary where I teach Spanish there is a student named Philip Johnson from the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, who has serious brain cancer. Out of his love for God and life, he tried to convince Brittany Maynard, the woman who moved from California to Oregon, to choose life. For me, he is our inspiration as he continues to study faithfully and tirelessly for the priesthood against great odds. By his example he encourages us to stand up for life out of love for God from conception to natural death.
Archbishop Gomez has defined death as a mystery, but insists that “we can make death less painful, less frightening and even make it a time for beauty, mercy and reconciliation.” We need to pray for each other and change our culture from one of death to one of life.
So let us ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to help all of us grow in true compassion, respecting the dignity of life for all from conception to natural death. Stand up for life!
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.