‘Do people know they can come to me for help when they are in need?” It’s a question New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan poses as a prompt for “a kind of ‘Coronavirus Pandemic Examination of Conscience.’” He writes this in a new pastoral letter “Fostering a Culture of Life as a People of Hope.” He issued it on the feast of St. Joseph on March 19 and, like his new book, I Am with You: Lessons of Hope and Courage in Times of Crisis (which I interviewed him about here), is the kind of reflection we need as we come out of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. And in reviewing some of what we’ve been through, he offers some spiritual and practical guidance for the deeper pandemics we face.
He uses the ongoing Year of St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, to remind us of our duties to one another. People are lonely. And they already were before social distancing and shutdowns. Before the pandemic, assisted suicide seemed to be set to sweep the nation — at least all the blue states such as New York. Andrew Cuomo has other things on his mind these days, but he had once indicated his support for it when pressed. His own expressed regrets about not having spent more time with his own father toward the end of his life might be a merciful guardrail for him. Maybe the pandemic should be a guardrail for all of us. Suicide is a dark fog that we can’t get away from — I know people in my life who have taken their lives in desperation. I know even more people who have considered it. Not just casually thinking it might be better to die, but putting a plan together. And the truth is that when doctors are asked why people are coming to them for physician-assisted suicide, they say “loss of autonomy” (92 percent), “less able to engage in activities” (90 percent), “loss of dignity” (79 percent), “loss of control of bodily functions” (48 percent), and “feelings of being a burden” (41 percent). Those reasons alarm disability advocates, because they’re dangerous for them.
And yet, those who advocate assisted suicide claim unbearable pain is the reason that the legalization of assisted suicide is necessary. But that is to ignore the tender science of palliative care. In a remarkable new interview about the healing we all need after the trauma of the past year, Dr. Diane E. Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care at Mount Sinai Hospital, talked about how physician-assisted death is not solution. “I wouldn’t want to be part of that society,” she said. “There was a recent case in Canada: a guy with neurodegenerative disorder who was cognitively intact. In order to go home from the hospital, he needed 24-hour care, and the government would not pay for 24-hour care. He recorded hospital staff offering him medical aid in dying as an alternative. You think that doesn’t create pressure on people who already feel like burdens? They need to be met with a resounding commitment to continued relationship. Not: ‘You’re right. I agree you’d be better off dead. Here’s a prescription.’ That pushes someone who is struggling right over the cliff.”
And she boldly stated fact: “It’s important to disabuse you of the notion that pain is the reason people request medical aid in dying. Pain is not the reason. It is existential and spiritual. The only treatment for that is relationship, attention, sitting with. Not trying to fix. That willingness to be with and engage the person in giving voice to that suffering is such a powerful intervention. It requires training. It’s a procedure. It isn’t about, ‘We can fix everything.’ But we can enable giving voice to profound suffering, and that makes a huge difference.”
Assisted suicide shouldn’t be a religious or partisan issue. When Andrew Cuomo’s father was governor, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law released a report in 1994 unanimously rejecting assisted suicide, and cautioned:
No matter how carefully any guidelines are framed, assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and bias that characterizes the delivery of services in all segments of society, including health care. The practices will pose the greatest risks to those who are poor, elderly, members of a minority group or without access to good medical care.
It’s hard to think about assisted suicide without thinking about abortion. And like abortion, assisted suicide is most dangerous for black lives and other minority communities. The hospitality question is key when it comes to abortion, too. Do people know the options? Of course not. Instead of insisting on assisted suicide, let’s help people know they are not alone and get them resources. And as we approach holy days in the Jewish and Christian traditions that celebrate life, let’s live as though we believe women deserve better than abortion. Because they do. And we’re only going to have more violence until we confront that and reject unnecessary death.
Lopez serves as chair of Cardinal Dolan’s Pro-Life Commission.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.