Legalized Euthanasia Stalled in Italy
A few days ago, Italy’s Constitutional Court blocked an effort to hold a national referendum on whether or not to legalize euthanasia. Pro-euthanasia campaigners had gathered over 1.2 million signatures in support of the referendum.
However, despite the significant level of public support, the Constitutional Court ruled that the referendum was “inadmissible.” In its ruling, the Court stated that repealing the penalties for euthanasia would not provide “the minimum constitutionally necessary protection of human life, in general, and with particular reference to the weak and vulnerable.”
What the ruling means is that if Italy is going to legalize euthanasia, it is going to have to go through the legislative process, rather than a referendum. Although the Court’s ruling is welcome, particularly its recognition that euthanasia poses a threat to the “weak and vulnerable,” the Court had previously loosened the law, ruling in 2019 that assisted suicide is not always criminal.
While the terms euthanasia and assisted suicide are sometimes used interchangeably, it is worth reminding the reader that in cases of euthanasia (voluntary, involuntary, passive, and active euthanasia) the method of death – typically some form of lethal poison – is administered by a third party. In the case of assisted suicide, however, a third party only provides the means of death, which is then administered by the person who wishes to end his or her life. For example, with physician-assisted suicide a doctor provides the means; the patient, not the doctor, performs the lethal act. Moreover, euthanasia and assisted suicide can also take place through omission: that is, the removal of food or water or other ordinary treatments with the deliberate intention of hastening death.
Both practices are strongly condemned by the Catholic Church; however, laws regulate these two practices in different ways.
Pope Francis Addresses End-of-Life Issues
Just days before the Italian Court issued its ruling, Pope Francis dedicated one of his Wednesday audiences to addressing Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues. In particular, he spoke about St. Joseph, who is the patron saint of a happy death.
The Holy Father quoted the recent words of Benedict XVI, who said that, at the age of 95, “I am before the obscurity of death, at the dark door of death.” Modern culture, noted Pope Francis, “tries to remove the reality of death,” but the past two years of a pandemic have “brought it back into focus in a dramatic way.” “[W]e cannot avoid death,” the Holy Father noted bluntly. “Christian faith is not a way of exorcising the fear of death; rather, it helps us to face it. Sooner or later, we will all pass through that door.”
The Holy Father also emphasized the importance of prioritizing quality palliative care, while rejecting any measure that actively pursues death as a solution to suffering.
[W]e must be grateful for all the help that medicine is striving to give, so that through so-called “palliative care”, every person who is preparing to live the last stretch of their life can do so in the most humane way possible. However, we must be careful not to confuse this help with unacceptable drifts towards killing. We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate any form of suicide. Remember that the right to care and treatment for all must always be prioritised, so that the weakest, particularly the elderly and the sick, are never rejected. Life is a right, not death, which must be welcomed, not administered. And this ethical principle concerns everyone, not just Christians or believers.
Pope Francis also called out inequities in health care that lead to elderly people not receiving the medications and treatments they need. “Very often,” he lamented, “we see in a certain social class that the elderly, since they do not have means, are given fewer medicines than they need, and this is inhuman; this is not helping them, it is driving them towards death earlier.”
This is neither human nor Christian. The elderly should be cared for as a treasure of humanity: they are our wisdom. Even if they do not speak, or if they do not make sense, they are still the symbol of human wisdom. They are those who went before us and have left us many beautiful things, many memories, much wisdom. Please, do not isolate the elderly, do not accelerate the death of the elderly. To caress an elderly person has the same hope as caressing a child, because the beginning of life and the end are always a mystery, a mystery that should be respected, accompanied, cared for, loved.
Standing Against the Tide of Death
While pro-assisted suicide and euthanasia campaigners around the world have made some progress in recent years, that progress has been fairly slow. Euthanasia and/or assisted suicide are legal in a little over a dozen countries including Belgium, Canada, Colombia, the Netherlands, parts of Australia, parts of the United States, and others.
Nevertheless, there are many signs that momentum is growing, and that pressure to liberalize the law is also growing. Indeed, there seems to be a general agreement that as many developed Western nations rapidly age, due to low birth rates and high life expectancy, the pressure will only continue to mount.
Last year, for instance, the British Medical Association dropped its formal opposition to assisted suicide by a razor-thin vote, with 49% of members voting in favor of dropping the opposition, and 48% voting against. The narrowness of that vote suggests that many doctors remain deeply uncomfortable with the practice. However, having the largest medical association in one of the most powerful nations on earth take this stance is deeply worrisome.
Pro-life activists who focus on end-of-life issues have been warning for years that in those countries where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legalized, there is clear evidence that what begins as a “rare” practice quickly become normative. Perhaps the most disturbing effect of legalization is that in very short order we see pressure being placed on those who are elderly or seriously ill to consider ending their lives. In countries that have nationalized health systems, there are perverse incentives favoring euthanasia and assisted suicide, which can save the health care system considerable sums of money and resources by hastening death.
In 1980, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a “Declaration on Euthanasia.” That document made clear that “What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which the sick person can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses” (§ II). In 1995, Pope St. John Paul II re-affirmed this teaching saying that “True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear” (Evangelium vitae, no. 66).
However, the inner logic of euthanasia and assisted suicide is such that they remove the legal safeguards that prioritize and protect this kind of warmth, and instead create a path towards encouraging the dying to “speed up” the process so that they can cease being a “burden” to others.
This attitude is profoundly contrary to human dignity and the respect due to human persons.
As the Italian bishops wrote in response to the Constitutional Court’s decision, “life is a right, not death, which must be accepted, not administered” and “we must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate any form of suicide.”
There are many ways in which we can continue to stand alongside those who are sick and dying. The advances in palliative care in recent decades have brought enormous consolation to those who are dying, and ensured that they have been able to meet death with greater dignity and less suffering. These are the areas where we must pour all of our resources. However, by prioritizing euthanasia and assisted suicide we risk robbing the vulnerable and those who love them of the meaningful experience of a truly humane death that respects the dignity of human persons, while also bringing our culture further along the trajectory of the culture of death, as Pope St. John Paul II warned:
[W]e are faced with one of the more alarming symptoms of the “culture of death”, which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and by society, which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly impaired life no longer has any value. (Evangelium vitae, no. 64)
Pro-euthanasia campaigners in Italy have vowed to continue their fight to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. We must meet resolve with resolve. But also find new ways to preach the message that authentic compassion and love for the dying are not manifested in immoral and inhumane practices. We can do better than euthanasia and assisted suicide.
In moving remarks during that Wednesday audience, Pope Francis noted that “it is only through faith in resurrection that we can face the abyss of death without being overwhelmed by fear. Not only that: we can restore a positive role to death. Indeed, thinking about death, enlightened by the mystery of Christ, helps us to look at all of life through fresh eyes.”
This is the message of the Gospel of Life. This is the Good News that the Church has to bring to a world both simultaneously terrified of, and obsessed with, death. Death is not the end. Even in death, there is life.
And so, let us pray, along with Pope Francis: “May Saint Joseph help us to live the mystery of death in the best possible way.”
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.