Thursday, June 2, 2016

Reflections on Assisted Suicide

It has been a while since I posted on my blog. Sometimes I forget about it because most of my posts go the Archdiocese and Cathedral blogs in the form of homilies and pastoral letters. So, I need to be a bit more attentive to this blog.

As you know, this is not an official forum where I speak on behalf of and for the Church. The Archdiocese blog is primarily the venue for that. This is a forum wherein I give my personal opinions and reflections on certain issues and topics. Granted, the opinions and reflections I post here will always be founded (I pray that they are!) in the teachings and Tradition of the Orthodox Faith and Church, but they are less formal in their presentation.

Sometime ago, I issued a pastoral letter on physician-assisted suicide. This is one of the subjects I have a great personal interest in and one which I follow very closely. Because physician-assisted suicide is becoming more and more common and the debates surrounding it more and more intense, I wanted to share with you my own personal thoughts on this very important matter.

Several American States already have enacted legislation and laws permitting physician-assisted suicide. And Canada legalized it in February 2015, making her one more of a handful of countries (the others being Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) where physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal. On June 6th, Canada will further strengthen its physician-assisted suicide law by enacting further legislation which will "create exemptions from the offenses of culpable homicide, of aiding suicide, and of administering a noxious thing, in order to permit medical practitioners and nurse practitioners to provide medical assistance in dying and to permit pharmacists and other persons to assist in the process.

The rapidly growing movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia is disturbing and alarming. When combined with impersonal healthcare and insurance systems, the movement to support physician-assisted suicide is fast proving itself to be not only dangerous but lethal.

Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia exists on an immoral slippery slope that erodes and corrupts the doctor-patient relationship and the very nature of a physicians role in healing. In addition, PAS endangers families and relationships and destroys the very dignity of the human person as a being created in God's own image. 

In those states where physician-assisted suicide is already legal, the number of deaths is rapidly increasing. For example, the Oregon Public Health Department reported in 2015 that 132 people died using physician-assisted suicide, compared to 105 the year before. At first glance, this may not seem significant but in really it is. The reason it is significant is because it represents a trend that PAS is becoming more acceptable not only among patients but physicians as well. If the numbers continue to rise, we will see the value of human life diminish more and more. Human life will be considered more and more a "disposable commodity."

The slippery-slope of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia also lies in the fact that it may reach beyond terminally-ill patients. As proof of this, one only has to look to the countries of Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal. These countries allow assisted suicide for non-terminal illnesses and conditions, including psychiatric disorders like depression and schizophrenia. This is both alarming and disturbing. What we see is that people who are unhappy or depressed because their life is what they would like it to be can end their "suffering" by ending their miserable or unhappy existence. Someone whose spouse has left them or who lost their job and is diagnosed with depression now has a legal right to end  their "suffering" by ending their life? 

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide want us to believe that it is "heroic" and "noble" for someone who is terminally ill to take a handful of lethal pills. They say doing so spares family members undue anguish and pain in watching a loved-one suffer. In reality, such an act is cowardly and selfish and offends the majesty of God. It is not, therefore, an heroic or noble act but a grave sin. 

For those who profess themselves to be Christian, physician-assisted suicide puts their soul in dire jeopardy. In fact, I feel very comfortable in saying that such a person would not be saved since he or she has made the very conscious, fully-informed and deliberate decision to take own's own life. This is nothings less than premeditated murder.

When someone commits suicide, the Church always takes into consideration the circumstances which prompted a person to commit such an act. In most cases, there is often involved some extreme form of severe emotional stress/distress, or a medical condition such as PTSD or mental illness, which clouds a person's judgement or impede their use of reason. In these cases,the Church may permit a church funeral out of compassion and mercy. But when someone commits suicide because of a lack of faith or in the belief that such an action is rationally and ethically defensible, such as in the case of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, such a person may be may not be given a Church funeral or burial.

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide is not about giving patients the right to die but about giving the government the right to kill those whom they deem to be undesirable, inconvenient, a burden on society, and no longer useful. It amounts to playing God by the government.

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide like to hide the word "suicide" behind nice words like "compassion," "love," and "death with dignity." Dignity is not found in a handful of lethal pills or a plastic bag over someone's head. Dignity is found in compassionate and quality hospice care and the attendance and prayers of  loving, caring and attentive family who walk the journey of the dying process with their loved one right up until the very end. That is true death with dignity.

Physician-assisted suicide is dangerous for families. It has the potential to destroy families as some family members may oppose it while others may support and encourage it. It also opens the door door to the worst form of elder abuse by self-centered or exhausted care givers and greedy relatives. this is not an alarmist assumption or fear-mongering. This is a realistic assessment in light of a weak and frail human nature. We must admit to the possibility of such abuses precisely because our human nature is prone to sin. In light of this reality, we must be watchful and cognizant of the dire consequences which can result if physician-assisted suicide becomes the norm for our society.

The United States Supreme Court previously stated "the competent terminally-ill person seeking suicide is largely fiction." This is primarily because no mental evaluation is required of those who seek assisted suicide.Again, we enter a very slippery area where it is very easy to fall victim to what appears to be a noble and reasonable act but which, in fact, is really much dangerous than it seems. The consequences and damage which physician-assisted suicide can cause to our society overall are not worth giving in to the desires of a small minority of people who simply don't want to deal with the realities of life, including dying and death.

For people of faith, of sound and strong faith, the idea of prematurely bringing about death is not a consideration. Even in the face of extreme suffering and pain, a true Christian will join his or her suffering with that of Christ and offer it back to Him as a sacrificial gift. Such a sacrifice, such a gift, is pleasing in the eyes of God because it shows great inner strength and a deep abiding faith. One who endures their suffering and pain is a true hero and example to all of something so good and so great that it surpasses all human understanding and description. 

A person who suffers and who still smiles and laughs is one who shows great courage. Suffering and pain, while despicable and horrendous as it may be to experience and watch, nonetheless brings about a greater good. It opens our eyes to what is truly important and meaningful. Love can blossom in such situations. A terminally-ill person, by enduring their suffering and pain, become teachers to us all. Yes, truly, these are the great heroes, the great unsung heroes, who, because of their illness, are great leaders and teachers. Their example, their grace and dignity in suffering, should remain branded upon our hearts and minds forever as a lasting testimony to all that is noble and good. 

What concerns me the most about the rush to accept and encourage physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia as part of American culture and way of life is that our society is adopting the attitude that some lives matter and some do not, that some are worth keeping alive and some are not. The criteria for who lives and who dies is very thin. Suffering is one of the criteria but what and who defines suffering? Does suffering include any kind of physical pain? Does it include emotional pain and duress? Does it include depression at any stage? What about physical deformities? Or morbid obesity? What about someone with a chronic illness who will suffer more or longer than the terminally ill? Don't these people deserve the "right" to die? Or will the decision be made for them by doctors, government officials and judges who believe that such people should not be allowed to live because they are a burden on society? One would be naive to believe that there are no unscrupulous doctors, government officials and judges ready to take such actions, especially if there is the prospect or promise of financial or material gain. That statement may sound extreme, but human nature is what it is and physician-assisted suicide opens the door to many dark possibilities.

In a healthcare system severely overburdened by unmanageable costs and preoccupation with the "bottom line," the cheapest form of heath care and the best way to improve financial performance is a handful, cup or syringe of lethal medications. The dignity of the human person is fast becoming a thing of the past. It is frightening to see what is happening to our society, and to societies the world over. We see what is happening in the European Union ever since they denied their Christian roots and identity. Pushing God out of society causes a people to lose its soul and direction and plunges them into darkness and confusion. Until God is brought back into the life of society, we will continue our downward spiral into barbarism and brutality.

In closing, I want to reiterate what I have said before. The Orthodox Church, and the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church in particular, stands in strong opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide as well as any other means or processes which seek to prematurely end human life. Additionally, I want to remind you all that any Italo-Greek Orthodox Christian who asks for and secures a form of euthanasia or assisted suicide will not be permitted a Church funeral or burial. Further, any Italo-Greek Orthodox Christian who facilitates, carries out, assists in or in any way supports or encourages euthanasia or assisted suicide automatically incurs the penalty and sentence of excommunication, thus cutting himself or herself off from the Holy Mysteries and the community of the faithful. Such individuals will be be readmitted to the Church unless and until they repent of their sin.

My dear children, all of us will eventually die. None of us want to die. Certainly, God did not create us to die but to live with Him forever in perfect communion and blessedness. Death is a consequence of the sin of our first ancestors as is sickness and suffering and pain. But we must remember that Christ died and rose so that we may live. For the Christian believer whose faith is firm and unshakable, death is not the end, but the beginning. For us, life is not ended at death but merely changed. Christ trampled down death by His death and in doing so, opened up the gates of Paradise to us once again. Our earthly suffering and pain in illness and sickness is fleeting and will, if we have lived a good, righteous and holy life, be replaced with eternal joy and happiness. This promise of Our Lord should be our hope and consolation in the face of illness and death and give us the strength to endure whatever pain and suffering out sicknesses and illnesses will bring upon us.

Do not give in to the Culture of Death, my children. Choose to live in the Light of Christ and not the shades and clouds of darkness which are fast enveloping our country and American society. Put your faith and trust in God and not in princes and the sons of men.

God bless you all! Christ is risen!

Paternally yours,

+Archbishop Stephen