Now that the tragic events of the recent deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II have receded from 24/7 TV coverage, we can begin to reflect on the myriad of issues swirling around death, dying, and the sanctity of life. What I am having a hard time seeing are the differences among the cases of Kevorkian, Schiavo, and the pope.
I need to see the distinction between an act of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and of Pope John Paul II. Kevorkian wound up in jail and the pope gets a pass on choosing to die in his residence. I understand that the religious right from the ranks of the Protestant and Catholic churches sees this as a question of the dignity of life. Both rightwing groups say that we can't have people like Kevorkian going around injecting people with lethal substances, but it is alright to withhold injecting the pope with substances (antibiotics) to prolong his life. Obviously, the injected substances are different, but ethically what is the essential difference between Kevorkian's and the pope's choice. In both cases, the patient asks or rejects the intervention of an injection. In both cases, the patient requested to be treated or not, which caused their death. To me, both are examples of euthanasia: whether actively or passively, their request hastened death for each.
It is only after we deal honestly with this euthanasia issue that we will be prepared to address the more nuanced question of the Terri Schiavo case. All three cases center on the dignity of life issue and is the touchstone for the whole discussion. I totally agree that it has to do with dignity of life, but I reject the right's determining what dignity of life is. For example, I think that the pope had every right under heaven to say, "Enough is enough. I am dying. I have many life threatening problems, and it is only a matter of time before one or more end my life. I don't fear death and believe that God will act mercifully toward me. Therefore, I will not go through any more procedures to prolong my life. I have tried breathing and feeding tubes, but I am still dying. I don't want to live that way. The quality of my life has diminished so substantially that I choose not to go on and wish to die where most other popes have died-in my residence."
Essentially, that is what the pope said in word and deed. I say, if that is what he wished, he has the absolute right to demand that his wishes would be carried out-to the letter. It is a question of the dignity of his life. It was his life to decide what he wanted to do with his life. No cardinal or priest had the right to interfere with that decision. It was the pope's life; allow him the dignity to make this final decision. He knew that withholding antibiotics would quickly cause him to die, and he made that decision that ended his life. Had the pope chosen to go to an intensive care unit of a Rome hospital and had antibiotics administered to him, he could still be alive.
I do not fault him nor am I critical of his choice to end his life on his terms. What I don't get is why others can't make the same choice that the pope made. If an ordinary person who is suffering from an incurable disease and death is a matter of weeks or months away, as it was in the pope's situation, why can't that commoner also make the choice to end it by an injection rather than ending it by withholding an injection as in the pope's case? The only difference in the two cases is the means to death-not the result. In the pope's case, he had a septic infection that will end ones life without treatment in a matter of several days and the other person's disease might have taken longer. However, in both cases, the choice was to end ones life. What is the real difference between the denial of treatment and the request for a lethal injection? In both cases, it is an active and willful termination of life.
If the pope can choose to die when he wanted to, why can't others? It is a question of the dignity of life? Who had the right to say to the pope, "If you don't take this $5.00 antibiotic, you will die. If you don't allow us to keep you alive, we will do it against your will. It is a question of the dignity of life. You don't have that right to decide. We do because of our religious beliefs-even if you don't subscribe to them yourself." That is an absurd statement if said to the pope, but it is said repeatedly to those who have sought out Kevorkian. Recently, it was heard again ad nauseum in Terri Schiavo's tragic situation.
I don't get it. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Or perhaps more to the point, what is good for the pope is good for the people.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 2/1/01.