Dancing with Death

In America death has gone from being a taboo topic of discussion and an event hidden from relatives and children (this attitude toward the topic had its own problems), to becoming a choice—a personal liberty. It has even become a freedom we want to exercise not just in our own lives, but also in the lives of others: the pre-born, the newborn, the physically disabled, the aged, the terminally ill, the comatose, the severely depressed, the mentally impaired, organ donors nearing death, and so on. We have come to believe that we have the absolute right concerning who is to live and who is to die—and we don't want anyone contravening our decision.

Why should anyone contravene our decision? This is the question raised in refutation of the pro-life movement by those who laud the libertine license that masquerades in our land as freedom. The answer to that question is that the right to choose does not stand on its own: every time that “right” is chosen someone kills someone else, and killing a person is wrong. This basic truth has not merely been forgotten in America; its opposite is being openly affirmed.

One strong push in this direction came with the publication of Derek Humphrey's 1981 book, Let Me Die Before I Wake. Humphrey, who is cofounder and president of the Hemlock Society, brought euthanasia before the American public in a popular and accessible way. By the time his second book, Final Exit, was released in 1991, America was highly receptive to its message and prescriptions.

In the latter book Humphrey provided detailed information on how individuals can end their own lives by either killing themselves or having someone else do it for them. Final Exit sold more than half-a-million copies in hardback, and remained the number one nonfiction hardback on The New York Times best seller list for nearly five months.

Perhaps the book's most significant endorsement came via a positive review in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. It touted Final Exit as “an important indictment of medical practice, legal judgment, and of the culture at large, for failing to find a way to protect people against unwanted suffering and lingering death in the company of strangers. This book deserves extensive publicity and consideration for what it means to respect people's choices about dying.”

Keith Fournier

That endorsement is a perfect example of what is called verbal engineering. Changes in society and people's behavior is usually preceded by verbal changes and changes in the presentation of an issue by the mass media. I have long been convinced that such verbal engineering will be the downfall of our society.

In the above endorsement, doctors and lawyers have been “indicted” for not finding a way to “protect” those who suffer. But clearly implied by the word “protect” is the killing of people who suffer. Killing is described by words that are meant to express concern for the suffering, and those who genuinely express such concern are “indicted” as if they were criminals.

The results of this sort of verbal engineering have appeared in many ways. In St. Louis, Mo., for example, authorities have documented 11 cases in the past five years where the book Final Exit or copies of its pages were found near the bodies of people who followed its precise steps to bring an end to their lives. Nine of those 11 people were not terminally ill. Most suffered depression, one had hypertension, and another complained of severe pain, ringing in his ears, and poor eyesight.

The fact that these otherwise healthy people killed themselves through reading this book manifests clearly that “care” and “protection” is not what results from the “right to die movement.” No matter how much this movement claims to care for the terminally ill, it doesn't.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church enunciates a basic principle that the sick, the weak, and the handicapped deserve a special respect, they need to be helped to lead lives as normal as possible (cf. 2276). The Catechism also points out that “[i]ntentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God his Creator” (2324). The reason euthanasia is murder and the reason it violates the dignity of the human person is because one person kills another person, and this is always wrong.

We must continually speak the truth that to kill another person is wrong, and it is particularly heinous when that person is someone for whom we are called to have care and concern for. Those of us involved with the pro-life movement need to speak about this issue with clarity, because the verbal engineers are hard at work attempting to expand the culture of death by gaining a popular consensus for their view through the type of language described above.

Recall the words of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life): “Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?” (70).

They would in fact be worse crimes, because the suffering of those killed by their own doctors and relatives—at the time they most need care and love—would be muffled under the cold indifference of a world whose conscience will have been numbed to the longing of the human heart to have its life respected by others.

Keith Fournier is a lawyer, president of Catholic Alliance, and a permanent deacon.