Homily. Sunday 27 Year B. Day for Life
Today is the Annual Day for Life, a day when we consider some aspect to do with the promotion of the fundamental value that is life.
This past year with Covid, we have really focussed on the value of life in Ireland. On the one hand, sadly, more than 8,000 people died with Covid-19. Each of these lives was precious. And every life matters as I’m sure their grieving families would tell us. On the other hand, as a people we really rallied around and with a most amazing spirit of solidarity made huge efforts to protect those who were most vulnerable to the disease. There was so much effort made by those working in hospitals, test centres, vaccination clinics, schools, churches, supermarkets and in so many other places, all doing their best to make sure people didn’t succumb to the disease.
What we might be less conscious of is that while all of this great work was going on to protect life, the Oireachtas was being asked to discuss legislation to provide for assisted suicide. Assisted suicide would be where people get others, for instance healthcare workers, to assist them to take their own life.
That particular piece of legislation, thank God, was rejected by the Oireachtas Committee for Justice on the grounds that it was deeply flawed. But the surprising and disappointing thing is that the Oireachtas Committee did not reject the principle of Assisted Suicide and has proposed that Assisted Suicide be discussed further by a special committee, which would report within a specified timeframe.
Sometimes people say that to assist someone who wants to end his/her life is compassion. But having compassion means “suffering with” someone. We certainly need to do all we can to relieve pain and, as doctor friend of mine told me years ago, normally no one should be in pain as they approach death because we have the medicine for relief of pain. But it’s quite another thing to assist a person take their life. Yesterday, I attended a conference on-line and a well-known medical Professor from England, Prof. Finlay, spoke at it. I was struck by a phrase she said quoting someone: you don’t have to kill a patient to kill pain.
And yet it seems the Oireachtas in Ireland is going to consider how healthcare workers will be allowed to administer drugs so that a person can take their own life. That is shocking. Healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses are given privileged access to the human body and to drugs for the express purpose of healing and alleviating pain. Any suggestion that they should be expected to assist and, under certain circumstances, actually perform the act that ends the life of another person, is seriously damaging to the ethos and the credibility of the healthcare professions. I believe it is unfair on them and would damage healthcare and our normal relationship with healthcare professionals.
The fact is that we can see from other countries, once assisted suicide becomes lawful, it is then presented and perceived as something good to do. Then what happens is that, instead of being surrounded by love and care, people who are already vulnerable and dependent on others due to their illness, or being very elderly or suffering from dementia, or having disabilities are made to feel that assisted suicide would be “the decent thing to do”.
Jesus gave us the image of the good Samaritan as the model for our compassion and our solidarity with those who find themselves vulnerable and who fear being abandoned in their final illness. The Good Samaritan was one to bound up the wounds and stayed with the person for as long as was required and arranged for care.
At the Conference I attended yesterday, it was said that we need to tell stories of good deaths. Unfortunately, what can happen is that there’s an upgrading of messages of fear about those approaching death and a downgrading of the message of just how much can be done for them and how so many really die well. In Ireland we are fortunate that in general we still have a culture that surrounds the dying with much care and love. Of course, the death of a loved one is always tinged with sadness. Yet, there are many stories of people who die well surrounded in their last days and weeks by family members and good healthcare. It would be said to let the messages of fear usher in a culture of assisted suicide.
It is good for us to learn from the attitude of Jesus towards the sick and towards those who are in any way marginalised. It has much to teach us about the value of time spent caring for one another. Many of us, at times, are called to be carers in our own circle of family and friends. Others are a helpful support for the carers. We need to acknowledge the important contribution we make in care for the sick and dying. It has an impact not only on the sick and dying. So often bonds of friendship and solidarity build up, rippling like circles of good news about caring relationships, extending beyond the family, the carers and the one who is cared for to the whole of society reminding us we are a society that wants to value life.