Assisted suicide is gaining speed in the United States. First effectively legalized in Oregon (1997), followed by Washington (2008), Montana (2009), and Vermont (2013), “physician aid-in-dying” will have been considered in 25 state legislatures and the District of Columbia during the 2015 session. Seventeen will have considered it for the first time in history.
In addition to our obligation to resist unjust laws, we’re being called to deeper reflection on the family and the personal ways in which we can celebrate the true dignity and vital role of all family members — especially those whom the dominant culture would discard.
In this context, it’s helpful to recall the beauty, purposes, and gifts of elderly persons who are susceptible to neglect and its lethal relatives: assisted suicide and euthanasia. We’re talking about parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, friends, priests, religious, educators, and, sooner or later, ourselves.
“Our elders are men and women … who came before us on our own road … in our daily battle for a worthy life,” Pope Francis said on March 4, 2015. “They are men and women from whom we have received so much. We are that elder — in the near or far future, but inevitably.”
Behind the appeals to autonomy in the push for legalized assisted suicide is the insidious lie that life is not worth living under certain conditions — that it has no purpose, nothing to give, and no relevance to the family or the community. Our “throw-away culture” tells the lie, sending the message that the elderly are useless, expensive, outdated, and generally would do society a favor by getting out of the way. It’s easy to fall prey to this thinking when we are made to feel irrelevant, worthless, disconnected, or otherwise abandoned by society. The leading reasons for requesting assisted suicide in Oregon reflect this mindset: loss of autonomy, inability to participate in activities, and loss of dignity.
This is why, in speaking to the elderly on Nov. 12, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that “those who welcome the elderly welcome life!” God offers unique gifts at different stages of life, which we are called to use and share, and the elderly are no exception — but we need interaction! In Benedict’s words, “the elderly are a value for society, especially for the young. There can be no true human growth and education without fruitful contact with the elderly.” Not only must we care for them because of the gift that they are, but they also have unique gifts to offer that we need.
Pope Francis has called the elderly a “reservoir of wisdom,” pointing out that “old age has a grace and a mission.” Both Francis and Benedict have noted the fundamental importance and power of prayer at this stage of life, strengthened by a wisdom that understands difficult situations. The elderly teach us that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. They show us how to overcome anxieties about the future. They are even pioneers, leading the way through the complexities and novelties of old age in a medically advanced society, giving us a glimpse of what lies ahead. They can also be guideposts of commitment and fidelity in their different vocations, modeling these virtues for young people who are steeped in rapid change.
The elderly offer a most profound gift in the call to humility. Pope Francis points out that they “are abandoned … out of a selfish incapacity to accept their limitations that reflect our own limitations.” By seeing their limits, we are faced with our own. We are called to help others with their limits while accepting their help with ours. This contains a spiritual lesson about strength and humility when we recall St. Paul’s words: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me … for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).
Benedict, whom Francis has lovingly called “a wise grandfather,” summed it up beautifully: “This is important at every stage of life: No one can live alone and without help. I see, with pleasure, that all those who help and all those who are helped form one family, whose lifeblood is love.”
In the spirit of the World Meeting of Families, let us live this out on a daily basis, seeing our own need for help as a gift to others, an opportunity to teach others through humility and creativity within our unique limits — and an occasion to strengthen the human encounters that are an antidote for the poisonous mentality of assisted suicide and euthanasia that particularly impacts the elderly.
JOHN A. DI CAMILLO, BE.L., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.