In physician-assisted suicide debate, language matters

I hope that you had an opportunity to read a front page article in the Aug. 28 edition of the Denver Post titled: “Matters of Life, Death and Language: The terminally ill are the focus of the latest tussle over terms.”

Given that the article reveals that the Denver Post has already made a choice into how they will report discussions on this issue (notice their use of ‘tussle’ in the subhead, indicating that this is all just a little something to get over), this article gives great insight into the power of words. The issue is a referendum which will appear on all Colorado Ballots this November.

Those who proposed this issue called their referendum: “End of Life Options.” The Secretary of State’s Office has called the matter “Medical Aid in Dying Initiative.” Consider that the “End of Life Option” to which this matter is referring is the ability to obtain a prescription from a physician to allow a person to take their own life, or to use language which is in common usage, “to commit suicide.”

“Medical Aid” is another euphemism, for the aid being sought is a cocktail of drugs which will allow a person to end their life.

Whenever Satan, the great tempter, raises his ugly head into the world, the first thing that he does is to seek a disguise. It has been a tired and successfully tested method to hide an ugly reality behind a mask, so that those who might be easily fooled don’t notice that something here is afoot. Death by our own hands, namely suicide, is what is rising up in our midst. And death is seeking some help: it wants doctors to do its bidding!

Years ago, strong, well-funded advocates of allowing adults to take the lives of their unborn children played just such a word game. They knew that it would be very difficult to get a majority of people to support abortion. So they changed the language. Aborting children became a debate about rights—the right to choose.

In this debate everyone lost. Pitting mothers against their unborn children who have no voice, has left all mothers poorer. For now, every woman who becomes pregnant can be isolated from the father who shares in the creation of life and the human community that might help to care for that life. Language has made the life and death decision about a human life simply a matter of a woman’s choice. Absolving fathers of any responsibility, except to cover the fee for an abortion, has removed the men of our society from the personal responsibility to consider their actions in the first place, which bring about the conception of children. And the most important change of all is simply this: children die, every day. Language matters.

Now advocates of physician-assisted suicide want you to be lulled into silence once again. “Medical Aid” and “Options in Dying” want to hide this real truth that human beings are asking not for aid or options, but death. John Stonestreet, who is with the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, is quoted in this article as saying: “‘Dying with dignity’ is a euphemism for killing elderly and terminally ill patients by giving them a cocktail of drugs. ‘Medical aid in dying’ doesn’t convey the reality of what’s at stake. The phrase makes it sound as if doctors are only making their patient comfortable as they die, not providing the prescription that ends their life.”

It is a truth that each of us will die. It is also true that death is not clinical and pretty. People age, people suffer, some face long-term battles with debilitating diseases. But death should never be a quick fix. Death should require the most compassionate and personal response from families and communities, especially communities of faith.

For years, doctors, nurses, social workers, musicians, scientists and people of all walks of life have been working to help people as they die know their worth, know that they are cared for, know that they are surrounded by a community that has not forgotten them. We as a Church have a great and remarkable challenge to join in this most human act—accompanying those who are dying with love until their death.

The article in the Denver Post raises another challenging issue: “Coloradans probably will get tired of both terms by the election, after they are bombarded with TV and radio ads.” This is exactly what the proponents of physician-assisted suicide are hoping for. We do have short attention spans, and often find it troubling to engage with the issues of our modern age thoughtfully, prayerfully, and for more than 10 minutes.

But we also have the example of our God who walked among us. Not abandoning creation to its follies, God became flesh in our midst. Jesus walked the way of the cross, and as he hung dying, did not complain that he had had enough of this folly and zip off to other places in greater need of his attention. Jesus died on the cross. He surrendered his life to teach us that there are things worth dying for—namely all of us. Let us never tire of walking in his footsteps as we also take up our cross.

 This column was written by Father James Fox, pastor at Good Shepherd Parish in Denver.  The column first appeared in the Sept. 4 bulletin of Good Shepherd Catholic Parish. It has been slightly edited for style, and reprinted here with permission.

 

COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.