Thursday, January 18, 2018

Homily on the Occasion of the March for Life

The 45th Annual March for Life takes place tomorrow, Friday 19 January, in Washington, D.C.  It is always an interesting time when tens of thousands of people, young Catholic students in particular, descend on D.C.  Anyone who knew anyone who was at Georgetown, or who knew anyone, who knew anyone, who had a cousin at Georgetown, could be found sleeping on dorm floors.  Not all Georgetown students supported the march of course.  There was always the presence of the Georgetown students for choice, mostly girls and a group of epicene boys, raising their usual hue and cry.  Young religious sisters, particularly the Sisters for Life in their blue and white habits, roamed the campus and city.  I never attended the march in person, mostly due to weather, distances involved, and old-age hood, the last being the most significant.  However, in January 2012, five weeks post CABG x 4, I had the privilege of leading the Holy Hour, Benediction, and Rosary in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel prior to the beginning of the 13th Annual Cardinal O'Connor Conference for Life.

The annual march began as a response to Roe v. Wade, a decision that signed the death warrants for untold numbers of children in the womb and, in retrospect, launched American society on a slippery slope of killing the imperfect, the undesirable, and the unwanted.  In response the scope of the pro-life movement has expanded to include opposition to what is euphemistically called physician-assisted suicide or, even more disingenuously "physician-guided death."  Justin Cardinal Rigali defined the Church's, and thus our, role in his homily at the Life Vigil held in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 2008:  "Our task is to build a culture of life in which every person is treated with the respect due to his or her human dignity, regardless of age, physical or mental ability, or stage of development." 

After more than 40 years of caring for the elderly as both internist and psychiatrist, and ten years as priest with regular ministry in nursing homes, I remain perplexed and sardonically amused by the exercise in the denial of reality represented by renaming killing grandma as physician-guided death.  I did not endure medical school, two residencies, and one fellowship so I could become a guide for people who want, or for families who want a loved one, to cross over some rainbow bridge.  Exactly when did old age or terminal illness become a capital offense?
In the spring of 1978, a few months before I finished internal medicine residency, I had the privilege of spending six weeks as a visiting registrar (equivalent to a resident) with Dr. Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher's Hospice in London. While St. Christopher's was not the first hospice in England, Dr. Saunders brought the hospice concept and the need for scrupulous pain control to international notice.  Her life story is fascinating.  It would be an honor to recount some of it here but that is not my purpose.  It is important to note, however, that she was a fierce opponent of what was then called euthanasia.  Any student so foolish as to ask about the question of 'euthanizing' patients realized in moments that he or she had made a serious mistake.  An article in the Telegraph described her argument, "Impending death is no excuse for ending life. Rather than rush to kill the dying in the name of ending their suffering, we should focus on practical measures for alleviating their pain and spiritual means to make their final moments worth living."
Robert Twycross, former research fellow at St. Christopher's, spent 25 years directing Sir Michael Sobell House, a hospice in Oxfordshire. I was struck by something he wrote around 20 years ago in which he suggested that a physician who had never considered killing a suffering patient was either new to the profession or singularly lacking in empathy.  He noted, however, that having the fantasy is not the same thing as acting on it.  Some fantasies must remain precisely that.  He went on to decry the idea of killing rather than treating the ill, the elderly, and the mentally disabled.  He is a contrast to Lord High Executioner Kevorkian. 

Jack Kevorkian had been a pathologist.  In general pathologists don't see patients whose body temperature is higher than that of the ambient air.  (NB:  Pathologists, alone among medical doctors, are not required to have the equivalent of an internship treating live patients prior to beginning their training.  The last warm body Kevorkian examined might have been in medical school).  His initial seven or eight patients were women, very feminist forward of him. One of the women was in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease.  I recall a photo of her waving fondly to her family as she entered the death chamber.  It was a painful photo and vaguely nauseating.  The photo raised questions.  Was this a free choice on her part?  Is free choice possible when significant Alzheimer pathology is present?  Are one's thought processes already skewed?  What was the role of the family?  Did anyone try to discourage her?  Did someone, a child perhaps, get the ball rolling?  (Mom, you know there are options.  And then you won't have to depend on anyone or sell the house.). Sometimes our vocations, willing or not, become caring for another who is ill, suffering, or dying, even though it significantly disrupts our lives.  Of course, having a child has the same disruptive effect on our lives for many years.    

As the abortion avalanche has careened down the mountain it has taken on disturbing aspects.  Recent articles in the mainstream press have noted that Iceland has almost eliminated trisomy 21, Down's syndrome, by aborting all babies carrying a third copy of the 21st chromosome.  When will the lack of genes for blond hair, the chromosomes for musical ability, or probable non-inheritance of dad's three-point fade-away jumper become grounds for aborting a child?  Will the SATs have to be changed when selective breeding and abortion produce children who get uniformly perfect scores?  

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae St. John Paul II, Pope, described the  Icelandic approach as, "eugenic abortion, justified in public opinion on the basis of a mentality--mistakenly held to be consistent with the demands of 'therapeutic interventions'--which accepts life only under certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap, or illness."

In ancient times physicians who pronounced and lived according to the Oath of Hippocrates were called "Hippocratic Physicians".  Not all ancient physicians--designated non-Hippocratic--took the oath or abided by its precepts.  Today, administering the oath is a trite ceremony at medical school graduations.  It is trite because the "oath" has been so bowdlerized as to be unrecognizable.  Phrases indicating ethical-moral behavior: "Into whatsoever houses I enter, . . . I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free" were removed.  The injunctions against killing are also missing.  Thus the young doctor will never say, "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art."   It might be best to drop the absurd oath-administering exercise entirely.  Given that the oath was written between the third and fifth centuries B.C. the usual whine about the Catholic Church trying to impose its beliefs is invalid here.  

The danger today, as pointed out in Evangelium Vitae, is "the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person."  Women's Health and Physician Guided Death fall under this rubric.

Unfortunately, there will be a 46th and 47th Annual March for Life.  The need for such witness may become even more desperate over the coming years.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace.

"Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace."
Chapel of Mary, Mother of Sorrows in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the site for a number of the liturgical activities associated with the march.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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