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We should be stewards of God's gift of human life

By Greg Schleppenbach
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The Feast of All Souls Day prompts us to pray for the faithful departed and to reflect on our own mortality. It's also a good time to review the church's teaching regarding end-of-life issues "“ a topic that continues to stir much interest in the wake of the very public debate over Terri Schiavo.

            The foundation of the church's teaching is the innate and sacred dignity of human life. In the encyclical 'Evangelium Vitae," Pope John Paul II asks and answers this question, 'Why is human life a good?"

            'This question," he says, 'is found everywhere in the Bible, and from the very first pages it receives a powerful and amazing answer. The life which God gives man is quite different from the life of all other living creatures"¦[it] is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory"¦In man there shines forth a reflection of God himself."(#34)

            It is a source of profound contemplation to consider the fact that human beings are the only creature God put on earth with the innate dignity of being made in His image and likeness. The awe for human life intensifies when we realize that human beings are the only persons God made with a body. The only other persons God made in His image and likeness "“ angels "“ do not have bodies.

            The sacredness of human life as a gift from God places certain obligations on us as stewards (not arbiters) of that gift. The first obligation is 'never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem." ('Living the Gospel of Life," U.S. Catholic bishops)

            With regard to euthanasia, the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church" says, 'Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.  Thus, an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator." (CCC #2277)

            Although our belief in the sacredness of human life prohibits intentionally causing death, the church does not teach that death must be avoided at all costs. 'Faith in the resurrection and hope for eternal life have enabled the Catholic tradition to accept death as the inevitable end to temporal life and to believe that death is the gateway to eternal life. It is for this reason that there is no obligation to utilize all possible medical interventions, all possible means of prolonging life." ('Medical Treatment Decision-making," Nebraska Catholic Conference).

            In other words, the church teaches us to avoid two extremes: withholding or withdrawing medical interventions with the intention of causing death on one hand, and the utilization of useless or excessively burdensome technology on the other hand. To avoid these extremes, the church provides a framework of moral principles to assist us in determining whether a medical intervention is morally required or morally optional.

            One of those principles says that 'if a particular medical intervention is necessary or useful for the preservation of life or restoration of health, there is a moral obligation to use it"¦unless it imposes burdens that are disproportionate to the expected outcome." The flip side of this principle is that 'medical interventions"¦judged to be useless (offering no reasonable hope of benefit) or excessively burdensome"¦are"¦morally optional."

            'Determining whether a medical intervention is ethically ordinary (morally required) or extraordinary (morally optional) involves comparing the burdens that the intervention introduces when used and the benefits it achieves, within the totality of the circumstances. The burdens might include severe physical pain, psychological repugnance, intense anxiety or fear, excessive expense, severely disabling effects, and excessive risks. First and foremost, the extent of burdens should be analyzed and judged from the perspective of the patient." (NCC document).

            Determining whether a medical intervention is morally required or optional can, in some cases, be very complex and difficult. Studying the moral principles provided by our Catholic Church and discussing them with one's family and clergy is the best way to help ensure sound moral judgments.

            Greg Schleppenbach is state director of the Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.

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