"I’m sad this is so hard for Mommy. I think it is even harder for Mrs. O’Beirne.”
That’s my memory of a young girl’s wise observation as she watched the sadness of her parents and other adults in a Washington, D.C., hospital hallway, going in and out of a room where our beloved friend Kate O'Beirne was dying.
Those were such tender hours, the last time I saw her, deep into the night before she died last month. A former Washington editor at National Review, vice president of the Heritage Foundation and a regular on CNN, among other credits, she was a powerful woman, by worldly standards.
But her real power was around her deathbed -- her friends and family. There was a peace, even a joy, there, even amidst all the sadness.
In those last hours, as we told her how much we loved her, it must have been hard for her. But, goodness, did she seem at peace -- even more so when her sons and husband were nearest. The veil between heaven and Earth seemed thin.
I think of this, because it’s still new. And because death, dignity and mercy are in the headlines constantly, as campaigns to legalize assisted and doctor-assisted suicide are successful, leaving us a harder people.
Recently, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, spoke in Toronto about legal euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide, which are legal realities in Canada. He commented on the primary rationales for these: “respect for autonomy and compassion for the suffering” as “internally incoherent and fatally flawed.”
“First,” he said, “supporters of legal euthanasia argue that respect for autonomy and self-determination entitles individuals to choose the time and manner of their death, especially when faced with suffering and profound dependence. Euthanasia advocates attempt to bolster this claim by asserting that this is a decision that only affects the patient and doesn’t cause harm or even involve anyone else.”
He reminded us that “Human beings do not exist as atomized units whose actions are entirely limited to their own sphere of consequences. People exist in embedded relationships to others -- families, communities, and nations.”
We pretend we are so radically independent even as we're in thrall to the hyper-connectivity of our social networks. This illusion of autonomy can isolate us from the true meaning of community.
As Cardinal Muller put it: “Euthanasia ... affects families and communities. It affects the medical community and alters its relationship to patients and the public.”
“The vast majority of persons with suicidal ideation suffer from treatable mental illness, including especially clinical depression. Suicidal impulses are also associated with badly managed but manageable pain. Suicidal wishes likewise emerge from intrinsic or extrinsic burdens, including social, familial or financial. It has been demonstrated that the desire for suicide often departs once mental illness and pain are effectively treated. This is true even among the terminally ill.”
I think of so many young men who end their lives in dramatic fashion, thinking it’s the only way to make any kind of mark on the world. It’s a lie and yet we double down on the lies in laws that present suicide as a norm.
Cardinal Muller's entire speech is worth reading and reflecting upon. He talked about how arguments for compassion fail when we see that effective pain management is decreasing for all patients in Oregon, where euthanasia is legal. “This is because once euthanasia is an option, it quickly becomes the path of least resistance for medical decision-makers, leading to an overall decrease in developing and pursuing creative pain management techniques, which in turn causes a greater measure of suffering overall.”
By the time I said goodbye to Kate, there was nothing extraordinary being done for her. She had fought against cancer, but it had now taken too much from her. She chose to live until she couldn’t live anymore, and by doing so she showed us what’s most important.
We are overwhelmed by so much today. By looking away from our concerns and preoccupations -- many of them quite serious, others not so much -- and looking at those we love right now, we might be able to face the hardest days together in courageous love and speak the truth when the most intimate realities are being debated as matters of law and the soul of a civilization.