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We are better than suicide

By Msgr. Paul V. Garrity
Posted: 10/12/2012

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Respect Life Sunday is an annual recognition that the central moral question of our age has to do with preserving the dignity of human life from the mounting encroachments of our secular world. The so called Death with Dignity referendum that will be on our ballots come November is the latest and most challenging threat to human dignity since the infamous Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973. The fact that prognosticators and pundits are forecasting a "win" for this referendum should give us all a reason to pause and reflect on the culture that may bring this about.

The Roe v Wade decision was not directly about the legitimacy of abortion. The court's decision that effectively allowed abortion on demand rested on what it termed a constitutional right to privacy. Because of this so called 'right to privacy,' all laws prohibiting abortion throughout the United States were effectively thrown out. What is most interesting about the current Death with Dignity referendum and Roe v Wade is that both have their roots in a philosophy of individualism that is at odds with the basic instincts of a liberal society.

The "New Deal," the "Great Society" and even "compassionate conservatism" recognize that there are basic injustices and inequalities in society that need to be addressed by government. Our society cannot be ruled by the law of the jungle where only the powerful survive. Because we are a civil society, we have a responsibility to care for one another. The so called "safety net" is not a luxury that can be jettisoned when the economy turns sour. Rather, it is our fundamental obligation as a self-governing people if we are to call ourselves a civilization.

The "individualism" of Death with Dignity and Roe v Wade ignore the notion that we, citizens of our republic, are a community of persons. The notion that I can do anything I want as long as it doesn't interfere with someone else's life pretends not to notice that by our very nature, as Aristotle observed, we are social beings. We are connected to one another. We are all in this thing called "society" together. While this may seem to some to be an overly spiritual concept that does not belong in the public square, the domestic budget of our nation draws it legitimacy and vitality from this simple concept.

This year Respect Life Sunday needs to have a particular focus on the Death with Dignity referendum. To begin with, this title intentionally obscures the substance of the issue. Everyone agrees that every person should be allowed to die with dignity. What this piece of legislation does, however, is legitimize suicide by terminally ill people who see no alternative to their suffering but taking their own lives. In this legislation, the word dignity completely cloaks the hopelessness and despair that some terminally ill people face.

The question we really should be asking has to do with how we care for dying people. If suicide is the best that we can offer the terminally ill, then we certainly have come a long way from the notion of a civil society where we acknowledge a responsibility for one another. Today hospice and other forms of palliative care offer far more to the terminally ill than suicide ever can. This is where our attention needs to be focused as we head toward November. And this should be our response to those who think otherwise.

Msgr. Paul V. Garrity is Pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Norwood.