Individual Autonomy

by Fr. Charles Irvin



For Outreach Mass TV talk to be broadcast on 1Nov98

I am grateful to the producers of this program who have permitted me to speak with you here both as a lawyer and as a priest in relation to Proposal B which will appear on your ballot when you vote this coming Tuesday. My favorite course in law school was Constitutional Law, a topic that has interested me ever since I was admitted to the Bar and especially later on when I entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. Constitutional Law is clearly in play here with Proposal B.

The reality behind Proposal B presents some enormous challenges to us as American citizens, citizens of the State of Michigan, and as Catholic Christians. Let me begin now by drawing your attention to some of the legal challenges and allow me to open the discussion by paying attention to the most potent political force operating in our society today, namely the presently popular conviction that Americans should be free to exercise individual autonomy in every aspect of their lives. Government should get off our backs and out of the privacy of our homes and allow us freedom of choice in every significant decision of our lives. “Americans are free to do whatever they want” is the prevailing mantra, repeated so often now that it is treated as if it were an absolute. The force behind Proposal B is the drive for individual autonomy.

That, however, cannot be. What you regard as an absolute right may tread upon and abuse what I regard to be my privacy and my rights. Your rights are limited, and my rights are likewise limited – that is the price we pay for living in a society. We fought a Civil War over that issue, claiming that the lives of Black slaves were of greater value than the claimed right of autonomy to own slaves and, in privacy of slave owners rights, to exercise total dominion over the lives of Black slaves.

We live in a society of ordered liberties, not absolute liberties. For the reality is that we cannot live in a society in which each person can do what he or she wants. If that were the case we would be living in more chaos than we presently have. Hints of that chaos have, however, already appeared on our horizon. We have children killing children, the institution family is under attack, more than 50% of our marriages end in divorce, and we have lost trust in our government officials. Our drug addicted children and a collapse in many of our school systems, along with other horror stories centering around terrorism and violence all hint at an encroaching thunderstorm called Chaos coming at us over the horizon. It is not coincidental that these awful portents threaten us as a society precisely at a time when our prevailing values center around notions of individual autonomy, rights of privacy, and the prevailing dogma that we have total and complete freedom of choice to do whatever we want.

Back in 1776 we grounded our independence on the conviction that we enjoy our rights because we were endowed with them by our Sovereign Creator. We declared our independence from the British Monarch by pointing to the self-evident truth that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Our human lives come from God, we declared, not from monarch or president, not from some congress or legislature, not from some court or legal system. Nor do we ground the value of human life on politics, or opinion polls, or referenda votes. Is human life to be guaranteed only by politics? That is the question Proposal B places before us.

Proposal B attacks the very ground upon which our constitutional order is built; it attacks the very structure of our society of ordered liberties. For we hold to the self-evident truth that human life is a gift to us from our Sovereign Creator who has endowed us not only with life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but with the authority upon which we have them, namely God authority and dominion over us, not whatever political force is presently in office.

We must remember that when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Czar first thing they had to do was eliminate the Russian Church. The Communists who followed likewise had to keep the Russian Orthodox Church in the closet in order to inflict their terrible and dehumanizing dogmas on the Russian people. All tyrants begin by claiming Man’s dominion and control over human life. Adolph Hitler knew that quite well, which explains why his Triumph of Darkness began with mercy killing. Once Hitler had moved mercy killing up from being merely a legal theory and made it public policy all he had to do was extend his domination over life. It later mutated into becoming his infamous Final Solution. What I am pointing out to you is that the forces of Darkness and Chaos present themselves to us as solutions to problems. They always initiate their encroachments by claiming authority over human life, a claim the British Sovereign exerted over us, a claim which we rejected in our Declaration of Independence by grounding human life in God’s endowment, not the government’s.

There are many other legal challenges to Proposal B, namely the fact that assisted suicide would be managed in Michigan by a committee of seventeen persons, all of whom must favor assisted suicide in order to be appointed to membership on that committee, and all being political appointees of the governor. Their deliberations, decisions and acts would all be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings act. They could secretly require medical examiners to lie about actual causes of death, deny notification of the actual cause of death to the relatives of the deceased, defraud insurance companies by filing falsified death certificates, and so on. This, by the way, could seriously destabilize the descent of property via the wishes and provisions set forth in the deceased’s Last Will and Testament.

I can only briefly mention now that doctors as well as all other health care providers would face serious legal consequences should Proposal B be enacted, consequences that are too detailed and complicated to discuss in the time allotted me here.

What you will see on your ballot this coming Tuesday will be a one-hundred word statement, a summary statement presented to you in the form of what is called a “legislative initiative”. Now that is a legal and technical phrase that you need to understand before you vote. A legislative initiative by-passes the normal processes we employ to pass new legislation, a process that involves legislative committee hearings followed by committee debate and then a report issued by that committee to the State House of Representatives. There the proposed legislation is debated and refined, and then if passed sent to the State Senate where it is debated and refined still further. Finally the proposed legislation is presented to the Governor for his signature. It is only after all those gates have been passed through that the legislation becomes the law of the State.

Not so here with Proposal B. If you vote for Proposal B you are voting for every word contained here in this twelve page document, a document containing over twelve thousand words of new law. Have you read it? Have the forces behind Proposal B let you know where you can find it? Probably they have not because secrecy is something they need in order to usher in a new form of state-sanctioned taking of human life. To call assisted suicide “killing” seems to offend some people – but the reality is such that assisted suicide is something more than the mere exercise of private rights. There is nothing private about assisting someone in killing themselves. It involves a client who is requesting to be put to death, a provider who makes a judgment as to the quality of life the person is living as well as the client’s mental competency, followed by the application of a lethal agent or drug causing death. This is a social contract, not a private exercise of a private right – a social contract involving the State of Michigan via a newly established and secret assisted suicide committee whose members are political appointees of the Governor and who are not subject to public scrutiny and public accountability for their acts. All of this presents us with horrific legal problems. All of this undermines and attacks the basic constitutional philosophy that is found in our Declaration of Independence as well as the system of laws that protect our ordered liberties and our common good as a nation of people.

Finally as a priest I can only summarize what many other religious leaders have said in regard to Proposal B. Nowhere in Islamic, Jewish or Christian scriptures can it be found that assisted suicide is held in honor or held up as morally good. Quite the reverse, it is an act in defiance of God’s sovereignty and dominion over human life. The Fifth Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” remains in force over us. God’s bestowal of life upon us is His gift to us and we should not snuff it out. For life is God’s gift to us, and what we do with our lives is our gift to God. Destroying it dishonors both God as well as His gift of life to us.

Death is not a problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be entered into, just as life is not a problem to be solved, but is rather a mystery to be lived. For us as Christians the highest act of faith is to enter into death with Jesus Christ. This is the supreme act of worship in which we surrender control and our lust for domination over life and give it, as Jesus did, to our Father in a final, total and supreme act of faith and hope and love.

Our lust for power and control has ravaged human life down through history. Once again we are presented with an opportunity to recognize that it is only love that will save us from our selves, the love in which, on the night before He died, Jesus Christ freely accepted. We can, and we ought, do nothing less if we claim as Christians to walk in His way, in His truth, and in His life.