Gift of Life 

The late comedian Norm MacDonald, who hosted the “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, made the following observation during one of his parody news reports: “Dr. Jack Kavorkian was responsible for another death this week. This time it was a 58-year-old woman. She’s the twenty-sixth of Kavorkian’s patients to die since 1990. When are people going to realize that this man is not a good doctor?” What made this joke so funny is that Kavorkian was the most infamous advocate of Physician-Assisted Suicide in the United States at the time. He would eventually oversee the deaths of 130 terminally ill people using a device he designed that enabled his patients to self-administer lethal doses of drugs. Using humor, MacDonald was simply pointing out the obvious – killing patients is not good health care. 

Over the past 20 years, however, this seems to have become less obvious. Currently, the CT State Senate is debating a bill (SB1076) that, if passed, would permit physician assisted suicide in our state. This, despite what we see happening in Canada, where suicide and euthanasia is being offered as an option to a growing number of patient categories, including those who with non-terminal chronic conditions, mental illness, and minors. This should not surprise us in a culture that has lost the sense that life is a gift, that it is something that we receive, and thus should be treated with reverence. This is the truth that underlies the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shall not kill.”  To kill is to make an ownership claim over life, and we have become very good at making use of technology to assert control over life and death. We see this in the case of euthanasia and assisted suicide, but we see it also in the use of contraceptive technologies that empower us to prevent the creation of new life, abortion technologies that empower us to prevent the birth of unborn life, and artificial reproductive technologies that empower us to take direct control over the creation of new life. Thus far, science has not come up with a “solution” to the “problem” of death, so we seek to exercise control over how and when it will happen through euthanasia and assisted suicide. All in the name of freedom and personal autonomy.  

But in the end, it never really leads to greater freedom, except maybe for the most powerful individuals in society. Because when life is not seen as a gift in itself, we quickly fall into the practice of developing criteria by which we evaluate what kinds of lives have value and whether the circumstances of a particular life make it worth continuing. If life is not a gift but something we control and have power over, then enormous social and economic pressure will be put on those who are sick to end their lives (there are many stories of this in Canada). With the availability and widespread use of contraception and abortion, there is enormous social and economic pressure on people to avoid inconvenient pregnancies, and to end them when they inevitably occur. With the development of reproductive technologies, there is and will continue to be enormous social and economic pressure on people to design children with a certain set of “desirable” traits and discard those who don’t meet accepted standards. But every human life is a precious gift, no matter the circumstances in which it finds itself. We must uphold this truth if we are to make ours a more humane society. And that’s no joke. 

posted 3/18/23

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