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New medical dilemmas

Abbot Peter Novokosky

Britanny Maynard’s freely chosen death Nov. 1 has been widely reported in the media. Proponents of euthanasia and of physican-assisted suicide have praised it as a humane step in human autonomy and in ending a life “with dignity.”

It goes against millennia of human wisdom that says it is wrong to kill or to take one’s life. The Catholic Church is a strong advocate of this wisdom. In her article in this week’s PM, Mary Deutscher warns Canadians that the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case has to decide whether or not Canadians have a right to suicide. “If the court decides that suicide is a right to which all Canadians are entitled,” Deutscher writes, “this will completely undermine the commitment we have made to suicide prevention programs.” And if suicide becomes a right, “we will have to ask ourselves: Why are we trying to prevent people from exercising their rights?”

Another consequence for our society, she says, is its effect on the medical profession: “The legalization of physician-assisted suicide is particularly devastating because not only does it normalize suicide, it also dramatically alters the medical profession. When this practice is legalized, it turns our doctors from healers into killers.” In addition, it will deter well-meaning and deserving students from entering the medical profession.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who was installed as Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Nov. 12, has also raised his concerns about modern medical practices — or their potential. Author of Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium, he spoke to Catholic News Service in February 2013 while he attended a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican.

“We are just on the edge” of pharmacological and genetic developments that will have “all sorts of implications for what it means to be human,” the archbishop said. “We might create human beings who are super sportsmen; that’s going to be something you could engineer even before their birth.”

“We do it in a negative way now in that we genetically test unborn children for a range of things,” such as a predisposition to diabetes or asthma, he said. “We can test for that before birth and decide to abort ones who have qualities we don’t like. But increasingly we’ll be able to actually choose what we want to put into a child.”

“We’ve also got enormous social pressures now on couples; you’ve got to have the perfect baby,” he said. “That’s going to get worse and worse, because everyday we’re discovering a new test for something,” such as future height, eye colour, IQ or tendency to obesity.

Fisher said another result of this growing “medicalization of reality” — the expectation of a “medical solution for every human problem” — is that “what we’ve branded health care is often doing exactly the opposite, it’s making us sick.” He cited sterilization, abortion and sexual reassignment as examples of procedures that are not health care.

The archbishop said western culture needs to re-examine what it means to be human and what is “a good life.” He said the church can challenge secular culture by posing serious questions, such as whether a world of designer babies — where a parent’s love implicitly depends on a child meeting certain standards — really makes people happier.

A pro-life strategy to change society should not be one of rigid confrontation, he suggested. Opposing abortion “in a way that won’t just harden hearts” against the pro-life cause means patient dialogue with the majority of people who are not solidly committed to either side. It also means sympathy and respect for women who might be tempted to seek an abortion.

“Some of the best pro-life campaigns simply say to women: ‘Actually, you can do this; it’s not impossible for you,’ ” the archbishop said. “That’s a very different message to a culture that says: ‘Look, this is a disaster, getting pregnant now. You’ve just got to get out of it, and quick, because you just can’t cope. You are a weak and helpless thing.’ ”

Today’s medical dilemmas require the public to be educated to a deeper level. It’s no longer adequate to say, “If it’s legal, it’s moral and acceptable.” Increasingly we have to ask: “Is it human?”