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The Arguments Around Assisted Death

03/07/2016 02:12 EST | Updated 03/08/2017 05:12 EST
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
A doctor breaking the news to his sick patient

Conscientious objection and civil disobedience have been instrumental in ending slavery and stopping wars, leading to the attainment of many human rights. When people are asked to uphold a law they find unjust or unethical, it is important for them to speak up and voice what they think is right. South African Apartheid, the Vietnam War, and other state-sanctioned atrocities needed to be challenged because they were violent alienations of inalienable human rights.

But conscience should not be used to oppose laws that advance human rights, and this is why the Catholic Church's response to physician-assisted death is deeply problematic. When dealing with the issue of conscience, we need to differentiate between harmful objection and helpful objection. To assist or not to assist, that is the question.

Yes, I understand that the terms 'harmful' and 'helpful' can seem, or be, subjective -- but not always. Slavery harms people. War harms people. Marriage equality helps people. Gay-Straight Alliances help people. Physician-assisted death helps people, too. And conscience, though personal, must be put in its place if it's used to justify causing or allowing harm or suffering.

Now I also understand that conscientious objectors to physician-assisted death think they're helping people, too, albeit in a roundabout way. They think that physician-assisted death is a violation of God's plan, and the eternal afterlife may be compromised by our choices in our present, physical life. But these are the objectors' reasons, not the reasons of the people seeking assisted death. In a liberal society we don't make decisions for other people based on our religious beliefs.

Allowing people to opt out of obeying the law on religious grounds can be a slippery slope. You can't oppose anti-discrimination laws because your religion tells you, or you think your religion tells you, that women are inferior, or that LGBTIQ people are sinners. You can't commit violent acts because your religion tells you, or you think your religion tells you, that infidels should be punished.

Reasonable accommodation of religion, and the freedom to practice religion, are essential protections, and they promote harmony in societies that are blessed with diversity. But there are lines. Proactively opposing laws that are designed to alleviate suffering (or advance well-being), which for people suffering irremediable pain from an incurable condition means physician-assisted death, is unjust and unethical. We can't conscientiously object on religious grounds to laws prohibiting terrorism, forced marriage, or discrimination. We also can't use religion to restrict access to another's court-appointed right -- in this case, the right to dignity.

Yes, conscience is a personal matter, and I do not believe that people should be forced to do something they feel is patently wrong. But they can't deny another's medical right because they disagree. Catholic doctors should at least refer patients to colleagues who will be sympathetic to their plight, and the same thing goes for health workers and educators when it comes to "Sex Ed".

Besides, conscience is clouded by dogma and not always based on accurate information. That's why I'm inviting conscientious objectors to see what were actually dealing with here -- to see a real live case -- and then see what their conscience says. There is nothing holy about irremediable pain. Physician-assisted death is not the taking of a life; that patient's life, as far as he's concerned, is over. Forcing someone to suffer far more than "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" is no different than directly inflicting said pain; it's being a party to torture.

I, a lowly blogger, and not a medical professional, am not the arbiter of what is right and just. But I do know that to question what we think our religions tell us is right is essential, and that the questioning process is ingrained in the pure practice of religion and spirituality. Questioning is an act of bravery.

I want every Catholic physician to individually question, through deep prayer or meditation, if they think God wants them to enable the unnecessary, terrible suffering of another human being. I want them to question their convictions, and those of the people who purportedly speak for God. If we permit people to cause or allow harm or human suffering on religious grounds, we are on a slippery slope toward a dark and "undiscovered country" indeed. But it is taboo to question people's self-appointed religious freedoms. Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.

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