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LIFE AND DEATH ISSUES

Local Catholics impacted by proposed assisted-suicide law reflect on implications for the disabled, elderly and terminally ill.

By Cathi Douglas     3/23/2015

“The Catholic Church has always defended the sanctity of human life. With advances in medical technology, that defense has organically evolved to represent life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. And that defense has consistently been put to the test by an increasingly secular world that would value human life only in terms of pleasure or function — as if a painful or difficult life, or even a “nonproductive” life, were not worth living.” (National Catholic Register, 2/8/15)

Local Catholics have joined disabled rights organizations, faith-based groups and advocates for the terminally ill in opposing California’s End of Life Option Act, SB 128, which was introduced to the state legislature on Jan. 21. Based on Oregon’s successfully enforced assisted-suicide law, the California legislation would permit physician-assisted suicide for elderly, disabled and terminally ill individuals.

Orange County Catholic spoke at length to several individuals who have strong feelings opposing the proposed legislation on religious, moral and ethical grounds. Some are facing terminal illness or severe disability, while others are directly affected by friends or family who are suffering in the same way.

 

Anaheim Hills family physician and devout Catholic Michael Cushing has worked 30 years healing others. Since 2004, he also has lived with pancreatic cancer, a terminal illness. Thus Cushing is in a remarkable position to assess the potential effects of the proposed assisted-suicide law now being studied by the state senate’s Health Committee.

“The problem with this entire picture is that politicians are trying to change who we are as doctors by trying to legitimize the act of euthanasia,” Cushing said. “As a physician this hits me upside the head. As a patient, I look at the potential abuse readily apparent with this bill, as insurance companies and the government change it into a mechanism to avoid paying for medical care.”

Like other terminally ill, elderly and disabled patients – as well as their families, caregivers and medical providers – Cushing considers the proposed law both dangerous and unethical. As a Catholic, he recognizes that the Church considers suicide wrong under any circumstances.

“There is a very real danger here of people committing suicide long before they’d have to think about dying,” Cushing said. “It’s a long, slippery slope to go from medical professionals killing patients to the state deciding that they will kill patients and threatening if they won’t, to pull their medical licenses.”

On a personal level, Cushing said, he has had 10 years to contemplate his death. “In the meantime, I look at what’s happened: Two of my daughters got married, one graduated from medical school, and I have two grandkids. If the state had decided my medical treatment was too expensive and that I should die, I would have missed so much of my very full and complete life.”

 

Monsignor Art Holquin, rector emeritus at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, suffers from hereditary spastic paraplegia, a rare and progressive motor neuron disease that prompted him to retire in March 2014 from his duties as pastor.

“We live in a society that exalts youth and health,” Holquin noted. “When people get old and sick and are not as useful as they once were, society’s perspective is that utility equals value, so they question their inherent value as individuals. We need to move out of this perspective and not look at productivity as value.”

In many Asian cultures, for example, the elderly are revered as repositories of wisdom, not because they are necessarily productive, Holquin said. “I was fortunate to have a wonderful older priest who shared a great deal of wisdom with me as a young priest.”

His illness has prompted him to focus on what he can do rather than what he isn’t able to accomplish, he added. “That kind of healthy approach to disability and the process of aging is helpful even for those who may be facing terminal illness,” he said. “Our Church and our society need to understand and appreciate these things rather than saying they are inconvenient and painful, and that the most useful thing to do is to pull the plug.”

In fact, Holquin said, he has witnessed terminally ill patients using their final months and years to face death with faith and courage, giving themselves and their families a great gift of love and faith while dying with dignity.

 

Former NFL and Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein, an NFL and college football analyst for CBS, now travels extensively as a motivational speaker. He has experienced firsthand the deaths of several terminally ill friends, including his late Servite High School classmate Jeff Scherer, who died in 2003 from the effects of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sherer, who played football at Long Beach State, was an electrician before being diagnosed with the disease. Within a few years, he had lost the ability to speak and had lost nearly 100 pounds from his 6-foot-2, 300-pound frame. Beuerlein and a group of ex-teammates from Servite helped start a golf tournament to benefit Scherer and his family. The group also helped with medical costs, meals, housework and the remodeling of the Sherers’ two-story home to accommodate Scherer’s disability.

“He fought this longer, in this condition, than most people ever dream about,” Beuerlein was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying after his friend’s death. “When you are stricken with something like ALS, you can either sit around and feel sorry for yourself and bring everybody down, or you can deal with it in a way that lifts everybody up. That’s what Jeff did.”

The Catholic perspective is very clear on assisted suicide, Beuerlein noted. “We believe that we don’t determine our final hours – that’s controlled by God. The people I’ve been close to who have been in that position have let nature take its course gracefully and have been inspiring in how they’ve fought the pain, dealing with it in the best way they could.

“Anytime you’re in a position to witness that, you realize the frailty of life and the reality that we don’t have any say in this type of situation,” he added. “Faith is a comfort. It clarifies everything. To die in a natural way is very peaceful, and there’s a relief that everyone knows they fought to the end. They didn’t want to let go, but it’s not our call.”

 

Friends and admirers call Alec “Bunk” Worth the world’s most positive man. An Olive resident and former Servite High School football player, Worth was hit on the head and suffered a broken spinal cord in a 2006 rugby accident. On every St. Patrick’s Day since, his fellow Servite alumni, friends and family hold a golf tournament to raise money to help with his medical bills. The 2015 tournament held at Coyote Hills Golf Course in Fullerton drew 460 players.

“My friends and family are with me every step of the way,” Worth said. “Any problems or needs I have, they’re always here financially, spiritually and emotionally. I’m extremely fortunate that I have a lot of good friends. Every person I went to high school with was at this year’s tournament.”

His debilitating injury, surprisingly, has brought him closer to God, Worth said. “I always figure God gives me nothing that I can’t handle. It’s just something that happened; it’s not anyone’s fault. I’m still alive. It’s just a little obstacle,” he added. “It alters your life, but you try to have it altered as little as possible.”

The proposed assisted suicide bill is wrong from the standpoint of Catholic faith and doctrine, but also wrong morally and ethically, he noted. “Death isn’t the way out,” Worth said. “Life is short and you have to enjoy it as much as you possibly can in the short time you’re given. It’s rough at times but it’s well worth it. There’s plenty of time for dying later.”

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Palliative care medicine, which offers physical, psychological, social and spiritual support for terminally ill patients and their loved ones, has been transformative for Vincent Nguyen, a Catholic physician and board member of the Orange Catholic Foundation.

“Palliative care isn’t about death or dying but putting the patient first,” Nguyen said. “I help seriously ill people in the last weeks and months of their lives to help them live without undue pain and suffering.”

Nguyen believes assisted suicide denigrates the field of medicine. “We are trained and we have a duty to dispense any means necessary to alleviate a person’s suffering,” he said. “We aren’t helping patients when we provide a short-term, permanent solution.”

During his 20 years of palliative care practice, Nguyen has had a handful of patients who’ve asked him to help them die. “These are people who have been successfully in control of their lives. Losing control is very difficult for them. I tell them that I want to hear about their concerns and fears, and I tell them that I will do everything I can to take care of them – not to speed up the dying process, but to walk with them through it.

“I tell them that life is sacred and I don’t have the right to take it,” he added. “I encourage them to move away from that quick way of ending their pain to the process of finding meaning and joy in their journey. I try to relieve their pain and give them time to be an inspiration to others.”

What brings him hope as a Catholic physician, Nguyen said, is what he experiences in the face of death. “There is a miracle of healing that takes place in the process of dying,” he said. “It is a time of forgiveness and for giving others the honor of caring for you before you go on in your next journey. No amount of money can buy that kind of peace. It is a privilege to do this work.”

Assisted suicide is a mental health issue, said Catholic psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty, which will undermine suicide prevention efforts and underscore society’s unwillingness to help prevent suicide.

“Someone who has lost hope believes that their present and future situation is going to be intolerable,” Kheriaty said. “Suicide is their only escape hatch to end the anguish. They need not only a solution for their physical pain, but to be offered a sense of hope”

Society’s messages of suffering and anguish at the end of one’s life seem to suggest that suicide is a rational, reasonable act and the best option, he noted. But a true solution to such pain requires creativity and human contact.

“We must convey to each person that they are not a burden and we are privileged to accompany them on this journey,” he said. “Life is sacred and valuable.”

The risks of legalized assisted suicide are not worth the price, said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, who wrote on CNN.com about the proposed California law. “Assisted suicide is a unique issue that breaks down ideological boundaries and requires us to consider those potentially most vulnerable in our society,” Golden wrote. “We should, as a society, strive for better options to address the fear and uncertainty articulated by Brittany Maynard (the California woman who moved to Oregon to utilize that state’s assisted-suicide law and became the face of the right-to-die movement). But if assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse. No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can properly prevent this outcome, one that can never be undone.

“Ultimately, when looking at the bigger picture, and not just individual cases, one thing becomes clear: Any benefits from assisted suicide are simply not worth the real and significant risks of this dangerous public policy.”

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