Cardinal Dew Challenges MPs on Euthanasia

7 Dec 2016 | BIOETHICS


Cardinal Dew spoke on behalf of the bishops of New Zealand to the written Submission to the Health Select Committee on their End of Life investigation, today at Parliament.

“Catholic teaching regarding the end of life is well known, however we would like to share with you our extensive and long experience of our priests and chaplains accompanying the dying and with those who are grieving,” Cardinal Dew said.

“In my more than 40 years as a priest I have been with countless people towards the end of their life, and personally witnessed moments of tenderness, forgiveness, laughing together, saying sorry, expressing gratitude and appreciation, admiration and respect,”

“I have no doubt that many families and the dying will be robbed of these deeply human moments if legalised euthanasia is available,”

“We see the dedication and commitment of family members, but also know only too well that families are complex and messy,”

“Families face many struggles, strains and challenges, especially when caring for someone who is elderly, dying or disabled,”

“Pope Francis has a phrase he likes to use: Our ‘families do not drop down from heaven perfectly formed’. Personal experience tells us that even the best families have times of real struggle.

“Sometimes this leads to fractured relationships; a carer or carers can feel isolated and unable to cope and the person being cared for is extremely susceptible to feeling like they have become a burden. No one should feel unsupported or feel that they are a burden to their family or community,”

“In these situations, the very availability of euthanasia will create a demand because its legalisation will send the message that it is not just socially acceptable but socially desirable –many people will feel that their best or only option is euthanasia or assisted suicide,”

“We cannot emphasise enough that this part of the natural process of living and dying is essential to quality of life. It is what dying people and the people around them deserve,”

Cardinal Dew ended by challenging the MPs saying “You will be asking society to judge someone’s quality of life, and a person’s family and carers and themselves will be drawn into that judgement. And really who are we to judge?”

Below is the full text of the presentation 

Cardinal John Dew

Thank you for the opportunity to address you all today. I am Cardinal John Dew, I am the Catholic Archbishop of Wellington. I am here to speak to the written Submission of the seven bishops of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference. I have with me here today, one of our advisers, Simone Olsen.
Catholic teaching regarding the end of life is well known.

However our written and oral submissions to you are based on a perspective which is arguably less well known; it is based on the extensive and long experience of our priests and chaplains –lay and religious – of walking alongside families who are coming to terms with death or decline and with those who are grieving following the death of a family member or close friend.

When people are near death our priests, chaplains and volunteers witness many beautiful moments of forgiveness and reconciliation, moments to tell someone they are loved and cherished, moments to say thank you and to share life’s memories

In my more than 40 years as a priest I have been with countless people towards the end of their life, in their homes, hospices and hospitals and personally witnessed many such moments; moments of tenderness, forgiveness, laughing together, saying sorry, expressing gratitude and appreciation, admiration and respect - sometimes things that had taken a lifetime to say.

These are moments of deep intimacy, they are priceless and irreplaceable. They provide lasting and life sustaining memories for those left behind. Neither the dying person nor the family member may have known that they had left anything unsaid.

In my experience, it is so often about timing. Simply spending time at someone’s bedside and simply being present, prompted these moments.
I have no doubt that many families and the dying will be robbed of these deeply human moments if legalised euthanasia is available.
But while our priests, lay ministers, chaplains and volunteers see the dedication and commitment of family members, they also know only too well that families are complex and messy.
Families face many struggles, strains and challenges, especially when caring for someone who is elderly, dying or disabled.
Pope Francis has a phrase he likes to use: Our ‘families do not drop down from heaven perfectly formed’. Personal experience tells us that even the best, close-knit, well-functioning families have times of real struggle.
Sometimes the struggles, strains and challenges lead to fractured relationships; the carer or carers can feel isolated and unable to cope and the person being cared for is extremely susceptible to feeling like they have become a burden - whether a financial, physical or emotional burden on their families and carers, or a combination of all three.

No one should feel unsupported in caring for their family and no one should ever feel that they are a burden to their family or community.

In these situations, the option of legalised euthanasia will all too easily become seen as a way out – the very availability of euthanasia will create a demand because its legalisation will send the message that it is not just socially acceptable but socially desirable – there will be many people who will feel that their best or only option is euthanasia or assisted suicide.

In my experience of working with families at a time of dying and death, particularly a parent, all the family dynamics come to the fore – it brings out the best and worst in people.

The potential for euthanasia to be part of this process will exacerbate family dynamics and our concern is that it has the potential to create further divisions in families at such a critical and stressful time.

As a priest I’m also very aware of the grieving process that follows the death of someone close.

For some there can be little comfort in the early stages of grief after a death other than the memories made in the last weeks and days of a person’s life. I also know the grief of those who are denied these moments because a person dies suddenly before anyone expects. This is difficult enough when it happens as a result of accident or nature.

Why would we intentionally create such situations?

In some situations, where a person may be comfortable, perhaps even in and out of consciousness, family are often gathered for days or even weeks. It is natural to ask – “How long is this going to take?” Doctors have repeatedly said that they cannot predict the day or hour.

For some there are the practical implications; family members may have travelled from overseas to be there, many are under huge pressure to return home, or get back to work or make arrangements for their commitments, knowing that following the death they may need more time off to make funeral arrangements to clear the house of belongings etc. I know this from my own family’s experience.

Others experience a sense of impatience despite the fact that the dying person may be perfectly comfortable. Can we be sure that this impatience won’t lead to a family member pressuring someone to choose euthanasia? Can we be sure that the dying person will not experience this as a form of very subtle but nevertheless powerful coercion?

Simone Olsen

As a relatively young person, and prior to looking more closely into the complexities of this issue, I, like many of my generation, had a reasonably relaxed attitude towards legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide.
I thought that while I would not choose it, and would support my family’s decision not to choose it, if it were legal well we’d just get on with life and not much would be different. I now no longer feel that way.

I strongly feel that my choices and the choices of many others will be negatively impacted if, as a society, we were to give some people the choice they’re asking for.

The more I have had the opportunity to look into the issue in the course of my work, the more my reluctance has grown to a deep and wide-ranging concern.

My concerns are many, far too many to canvas here today. Many have been presented to you by others in the course of your hearings.

Perhaps my key concern is ‘What will happen in my lifetime?’ I hope that I will reach a ripe old age. I hope that the question of how I will be cared for in my death will be 50 or so years away from now!

But I’d like you to consider what things will be like in 20, 30, or 50 years time should we move to legalise euthanasia now - when the people caring for my generation have only ever known a world when euthanasia was a normal part of healthcare?

I am expecting my first child next year and my thoughts have turned to what society will teach my child about the value and worth of one’s life.

What happens to people who are or become dependent on others in some way?

And how society cares, or doesn’t, for those at the end of life.

What will this mean for the attitudes and the care future generations receive?

How will the boundaries and strict criteria put in place now look in 50 years? Will each of the criteria and boundaries be contested by those just outside those lines? Will the lines shift little by little to create a society that, with the benefit of hindsight, would make us shudder.

What we have now works – it may not be perfect but legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide will create many new problems – many more than it will solve.

These problems will include the premature deaths of many people who will choose euthanasia because they see no other option – above all because of having internalised the idea that in their state of dependency they are a burden to their families or to the state - all brought about by a society that has, over time, come to view being old and disabled as a liability and a reason to question life itself.

Cardinal John Dew

You will be asking society to judge someone’s quality of life, and a person’s family and carers and themselves will be drawn into that judgement. And really who are we to judge?

It is difficult we acknowledge that, and many family members say to us that while it was difficult, it meant so much to have that time to share memories and moments of deep human intimacy.

We cannot emphasise enough that this part of the natural process of living and dying is essential to quality of life. It is what dying people and the people around them deserve.

To quote the founder of the Modern Hospice Movement Dame Cicely Saunders - 'How people die remains in the memory of those who live on'.

Euthanasia will create a different legacy for families.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak and for the time you’ve set aside to hear from groups and individuals over many months. This is a very important conversation about how we care for all of our citizens, in particular at the most vulnerable time in their lives.