by Fr. Charles Irvin
For T.V. Debate In Flint, Michigan, On Thursday
7 October 1998
The forthcoming referendum on Proposal B presents the electorate of Michigan with a clear opportunity to return to the purpose and intent of our nation’s Declaration of Independence. In it we declared to the British Monarch that we hold to the self-evident truth that human life is unalienable, which is to say that life inheres in our very human nature and therefore can neither be taken nor given away. In our Declaration of Independence we declared that the sacredness of human life is grounded in the endowment of life upon us from a Sovereign Creator. Our Founding Fathers were Theists, having no particular religion, but nevertheless believed that no monarch or president, no Congress or Court gives us life, or has dominion over it. Nor is human life to be granted or taken from us by popular opinion polls or voter referenda. The gift of human life inhering in us by the act of our Creator, simply cannot be reduced to mere politics. Yet such is the philosophy that undergirds Proposal B.
We need to immediately recall that our American Civil War was fought over the question of whether or not the lives of Black slaves were under the ownership and dominion of their owners, owners who felt they had a right to privacy with regard to how they disposed of their slave property, along with freedom of choice when it came to terminating the lives of their slaves. The slave owners fought the Civil War to maintain their freedom of choice . . . and, thank God, they lost. “Freedom of Choice” is not an absolute; there are some choices that ought to be denied. Smokers, by the way, have lately found that out.
Proposal B once again confronts us with the question: Does human life enjoy greater protection in our legal system than does freedom of choice? To say it another way: Is freedom of choice a legal principle that is superior to the taking of human life? The issue presented to us in the Amistad case is still very much alive, and we face it here once again.
No culture has ever held (or now regards) killing in the name of mercy as something that is honorable and to be esteemed. The people of Islam, the Hebrews and the great Christian Churches all regard mercy killing as a violation of God’s sovereignty. Our three great faith traditions tell us that in our arrogance and pride we usurp God’s prerogatives when we decide for ourselves who will live and who will die.
The Islamic people regard mercy killing as a usurpation of the Will of Allah. Euthanasia is an act of the infidel. I have not learned that it can be found anywhere in the Koran that Allah is served by putting suffering humans to death in the name of compassion. I’ve only heard that Allah is served by medicine and surgical skills in preserving and enhancing human life. Nowhere is it known that an Arab physician serves Allah by prescribing a pain killing medicine called Death.
Among the Hebrews it has been consistent orthodox teaching that God is the author of human life and that God alone exercises dominion over it — we do not. It is regarded by Jews to be sinful for us to usurp God’s prerogatives and take them unto ourselves. I cannot find it written in the Hebrew scriptures or in the teachings of rabbis that God is served in mercy killing. Nor do the Hebrew scriptures teach that good Jewish doctors should prescribe Death as a means of alleviating human pain. I do find the following written early on in the Jewish Testament in the Book of Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists . . .” [Deuteronomy 30:15]
The Law of Moses forbids mercy-killing. Why? Because mercy killing grounds itself on the fact that Man substitutes his will for God’s in exercising lordship and dominion over human life. It is sufficient for us to simply look at Job. He was, as you all recall, that poor, unfortunate man who suffered to the point of despair, the devil jousting with God over Job’s soul while claiming that he, Satan, could make Job despair and turn his back on God. At the heartbreaking conclusion to all of Job’s horrible suffering and loss we find Job crying out: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then the Book of Job reports: “In all this Job did not sin, or did he say anything disrespectful of God.” [Job1:22]
As for Christians, the references to God’s lordship and dominion over human life are innumerable. Time and time again the Christian scriptures teach that we hold life only as God’s stewards. In Christian spirituality we hold to the self-evident truth that life itself is our first and most basic gift from God, a gift over which we can only exercise careful stewardship — not domination or dominion. The earth, the environment, our talents, our world, are gifts God has given us, along with the gift of our very lives, to be used in order to accomplish God’s purposes, in order to return these gifts to Him increased by our love and energy. Life is God’s gift to us, but what we do with our lives is our gift to God. And it is not His will that we should snuff them out. Stated another way, our intentions and purpose in exercising stewardship over His gifts to us are of supreme moral importance.
Turning now to Jesus of Nazareth, I am unaware that He put anyone to death out of compassion or taught that His followers were to do so in order to alleviate pain and suffering. Likewise, in the Christian scriptures and in Christian Tradition I cannot point to any passage or teaching that calls upon doctors or the Christian faithful to put their patients and their loved ones to death out of compassion. I do, however, find St. Paul writing to the Romans: “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” [Romans 14:7]
For Christians, life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Death, too, is a mystery to be entered into, in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. Death, therefore, is not a problem to be solved, but is rather a passage into which we enter in order to accept God’s will. As Christians we enter into death with Jesus who, when faced with His horrible agony cried out: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Among the ancient Greeks Hippocrates counseled doctors to withhold aggressive medical treatment for patients who were without any hope of recovery, a form of passive euthanasia. Hippocrates maintained, however, a strict prohibition against prescribing lethal medicines and death-dealing agents to the sick and dying. His philosophy of medicine had guided doctors for more than 3,000 years, down to this day, holding them to the standard of preserving and protecting life, never to terminate life even via direct and active abortion. Proposal B would render the Hippocratic oath meaningless. Which is why many doctors fear that Proposal B may make what is permissible now in a few restricted and terrible cases something that will later become mandatory. Proposal B is the first step toward making what is permitted become what is required through lawsuits filed against doctors for NOT putting certain patients to death. Conscientious doctors cannot abide with that, particularly those doctors who have devoted their careers to saving lives, not terminating them.
Whose life is worth living? And who decides? These are the critical questions put in front of us in Proposal B, a proposal which explicitly provides for psychiatrists and doctors to decide who is qualified to have themselves put to death. Again, this is a social contract involving a client who is asking for death and a doctor who is prescribing a medicine called Death after making the judgment that the patient is qualified to die. It is not, therefore, simply the exercise of a private right.
Should Proposal B pass the State of Michigan would be directly involved in mercy killing. Through a special commission exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and exempt from the Open Meetings Act, the members being the political appointees of Michigan’s Governor and paid for with your tax dollars, Michigan would be establishing and overseeing a new form of state sanctioned taking of human life. How utterly ironic that would be — and how terribly tragic it would be, because our State of Michigan in its Constitutional provisions has, from its beginning as a State until now, always rejected the death penalty out of fear of executing one innocent person! With the passage of Proposal B, we would be known as the State that has always prohibited the death penalty — but now we are the State that is into mercy killing.
As for compassion, Proposal B eliminates the need for compassion by eliminating the patient! Are we now to confine compassion and sympathy simply to being sentimental expressions found only in our funeral homes? We should be caring for terminally ill patients, not doing away with them.
We must recall that it was no accident that Adolph Hitler and his Nazis were the first to raise euthanasia to the level of legal principle and thence to public policy. His regime was the quintessential Culture of Death, a culture that grew out of notions of developing a race of super men and women, free from all defect, free from all infirmity, free from all that would limit us. The Germans of his day were among the most highly educated people in all the world, enjoying a high culture and an active press. Until the Nazi Darkness enveloped them they were saying to themselves: “It can’t happen here.” But it did, as we all so bitterly know.
Cried Nietzsche: “God is dead!” It was necessary to declare God to be dead in order for Man to climb into His throne and take over the management of the universe, including human life itself in a Triumph of Darkness. For Proposal B to pass it is likewise necessary to disconnect law from morality, to shove religious values into the closet, and to separate our legal system from our Declaration of Independence, stating as it does that our rights are endowed upon us by our Creator, not by our legislature, our courts, or public opinion polls.
Are Nietzsche and his protege, Adolph Hitler dead? Quite! And God appears to be still very much alive. But Nietzsche’s ideas are alive and well, prospering right here in America and in our own Culture of Death. Hopefully our legal and political leaders will have enough grasp of human history and clearly recognize the lust in our human hearts to usurp God and decide for ourselves who will be born and who will die. For while we may lust for that power, we must remember that there is a vast difference between lust and love. And it is only love that will save us from ourselves.
Your Proposal B establishes a secret suicide committee (supported by my tax dollars — which I very much resent), the members of which are not elected by the people of this State but rather are political appointees of the governor, and their deliberations and acts are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, thereby shrouding their acts in secrecy and shielding committee members from public accountability. How can you guarantee that they will not subject old, debilitated and sick people who are in a coma to what is known as Involuntary Euthanasia? How can you assure us that this committee will not put people to death by assuming that such people would want to be but to death could they but express their intention?
Catholics are criticized today for not speaking out against Hitler’s genocidal practices, practices which originated early in his career when he legalized mercy-killing and the practice of putting people to death whom he considered to be “sub-human”. If Catholics speak out today against further killing in the name of eliminating their sub-human quality of life will you tell them to keep quiet and not attempt to impose their values on others? Why are we criticized for not speaking out in the 1930’s in Germany and now criticized for speaking out in the 1990’s in Michigan?