After I wrote this post about an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I thought responsibly handled disability and assisted suicide, I was informed by multiple people about another episode of TNG that seemed to be a little more pro-suicide.
The episode was Half a Life and it involved a planet on which all of its members voluntarily commit suicide at the age of 60 in order to avoid old age, infirmity, indignity, dependence on others, and the cruel uncertainty about when the end would come. I wouldn’t exactly call the episode PRO-suicide at all. Everyone eventually seemed to agree that it was a stupid custom, though they ultimately didn’t do anything to try to end it.
Actually, there are very strong arguments for letting life continue on its natural course, despite the pain and uncertainty that is to come. This time it was Deanna Troi’s mother who was the major champion for the sanctity of life. What is it about those Betazoids? Here is a pretty good exchange between Lwaxana Troi and Dr. Timicin:
“No, no, you’re not cruel to them. You just kill them.” BOOM! “What you’re really saying is, you got rid of the problem by getting rid of the people.” BAM! “What about the responsibility of caring for the elderly?” POW!
As our bodies deteriorate and we lose our independence and control of some of our basic bodily functions, we are still human beings. Our lives still have meaning. This can really be understood in light of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. While our late pope’s masterpiece is often considered as little more than a teaching on sex and marriage, the TOB is much more. It is JPII’s vision of the human person, as a whole, and what it means to be made in the “image and likeness of God.” Therefore, as Christopher West likes to say, “If you have a body, the TOB is for you!”
Over at Catholic Mom, Cynthia Ann Costello writes on the TOB for the aged:
The body being a gift is one of the major themes of TOB. Initially, we begin to think of the talents we are given as our gifts to the world. Indeed the Gospels teach us not to bury these “gold coins”, but to multiply them for the Kingdom. As we age, however, our culture tends to discard persons who cannot maintain their former level of production. TOB teaches us that we cannot be defined only by what we can offer the world by way of “doing.” This is utilitarianism. Our lives have value simply in “being.” I wanted to encourage this group, that on a deeper level, “you are a gift.” You…. just being you…. is a gift.
Read more as she goes on to explain how our lives continue to be a gift as we age by turning from lives of action to lives of prayer and suffering. And how our crosses, which inevitably increase with age, make us mysteriously part of redemption for the whole world.
Speaking of our duty to care for the elderly, the other day, Pope Francis caused a bit of a stir when he called the loneliness of the old is one of “the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days.” Kevin Tierney has the full context of the Holy Father’s words and says:
He says that at this moment, the biggest danger is not just unemployment and loneliness, but rather what they signify. What good is a society if they can’t take care of their elderly, and also cannot provide any hope for the future? Everyone is stuck in the tyranny of the present, which is a very nasty and brutish tyranny.
The Global Financial Collapse of 2008 changed a lot of what we know about the world. Unemployment has become nearly permanent for the youth, and across the globe the elderly have mostly been abandoned by their families. (Or worse yet, euthanasia.)…As many governments have enacted austerity in the wake of the crisis, the elderly have frequently been a casualty, as their personhood is reduced to numbers in an actuarial table. If you happen to be elderly and poor, well good luck.
In such a situation, it is next to impossible for the Gospel to take root. People won’t look to an eternal home when they don’t have much a chance of surviving in the present.
Must read from Debra Saunders in response to an article about a Bay Area couple who paid an Indian woman to carry their child:
I don’t think they’re bad people. I think the Kowalskis represent a prevalent view in American society – that when affluent childless couples want to have a baby, they have a right to have a baby, indeed, the exact baby they choose. If their decision risks the health of poor women, well, that’s OK, because the couple is acting out of love.
And if they sign a contract that turns a desperate woman into a mule who carries a child at the will of others? That’s OK too, because the couple paid good money that will help the poor woman’s family.
And if the poor woman is torn apart because she has bonded with the baby inside her? Doesn’t matter, the mule signed a contract.
The Kowalskis aren’t bad people. They’re decent people who live in a bad culture that tells them that outsourcing the gestation of their test-tube babies is a good thing. It’s a win-win.
It was one of the most heartwarming moments of the 2013 baseball season. On April 18, after a pep-talk from his “best friend and greatest batboy,” Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier ripped a two-run homer to center field off John Maine, extending the Reds lead to 11-1 over the Miami Marlins in the sixth:
I know there’s no crying in baseball, but it still brings tears of utter joy to my eyes. What makes it even more poignant is that this beautiful moment might never have happened if Teddy Kremer’s parents had listened to the geneticist who told them 30 years ago after Teddy was born that he would never have more than a 40 IQ, possibly might never walk or talk and that they should put him in an institution.
Teddy’s life and his relationship with the Reds was recently profiled on the ESPN E:60 series.
I hope that geneticist is still around to see this.
I wish I could say that the world has improved its approach to a Down syndrome diagnosis in the past 30 years. Instead, modern academics have managed to recast “eugenics” as a positive term, distinguishing their vision from past government-mandated eugenics policies. The emphasis now is on “selective reproduction” and the parents’ “choice” to decide what kind of child they want to have. The result has been a search and destroy mission to wipe people with Down syndrome off of the planet through eugenic abortion. And it has taken so much love out of the world.
Just look at the pure, genuine & beautiful happiness on both Teddy’s and Todd’s faces and tell me Teddy should never have been born. I dare you.
Go Teddy! Go Reds!
Warning: it’s about to get mighty nerdy up in here.
One of my favorite television shows when I was younger was Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’ve been watching some old episodes of the series on Netflix and recently I was very surprised and impressed with an episode called “Ethics” and the way it dealt with the issue of disability and assisted suicide.
The episode opens with Lt. Worf getting his spinal cord crushed by a couple of barrels in the cargo bay. As it turns out, there is still no cure for spinal cord injury in the 24th century. Devastated by his diagnosis, Worf asks Comm. Riker to help him perform ritual suicide because, “When a klingon can no longer stand and face his enemies as a warrior, when he becomes a burden to his friends and family, it is time for the Hegh’bat. Time for him to die.”
The real heroes of the episode are Riker and Counselor Troi who refuse to let Worf give up on his life. At one point, Riker confronts the wounded Klingon and reminds him of all the people on the ship who consider him a friend and owe him their lives and to think about how they might feel about his dying. But, Troi definitely has the best line of the whole show when she tells Worf, “Maybe it’s time you stop lying here worrying about your honor and started thinking about about someone else. Like your son.”
When an otherwise able-bodied person has suicidal tendencies we consider it a cry for help, a sign that they are not emotionally or psychologically stable. Why does that view change when the suicidal person is sick or disabled?
The experience of a traumatic, life altering injury or disease affects a person mentally and emotionally just has it affects them physically. Your whole world suddenly changes and, as few people can really relate to such an experience, very often you are alone in that world with all its pain and challenges – envying the physical freedom of others (or your pre-injury self) and feeling slightly worthless or at least inadequate by comparison. A great tragedy occurs then when you are further isolated by people who, in misguided compassion, pity you for all that you can’t do or the pain you must endure, and justify your feelings of worthlessness.
While some people think that they are doing the loving thing by helping their loved one die, what they’re really doing is affirming the other in their fear and misery. How is that loving? Instead, the sick and disabled who ask for assisted suicide should be encouraged to re”bound” from feeling so hopeless and shown what they still have to live for. As the late, great Fr. Richard Neuhaus beautifully put it: “As long as we are alive, we have all the life there is.” Whether we find ourselves terminally ill, permanently disabled, or facing some other permanent or transitory hardship, there is still some joy to be found amid the struggle. Suicide prevention should not be limited to the able-bodied.
Back aboard the Enterprise. When he’s told by Picard to have some respect for his friend and his Klingon customs, Riker makes another excellent point: “I can respect his beliefs, but he is asking me to take an active part in his committing suicide.” This is the eyeless “I” of assisted suicide; it does not consider the consequences to others. “Death with dignity” is hailed as an exercise in personal autonomy, but the people claiming this “right” do not act alone. They require assistance — a coarsening of some other person’s conscience.
I don’t have the right to ask or demand something that may hurt others. There is a reason why most doctors oppose “physician assisted suicide.” Their job is to heal, not kill. As Dr. Crusher put it, “the first tenant of good medicine is never make the patient any worse.” You can’t get much worse than dead. Now, some will argue that assisted suicide is about alleviating pain, but palliative care in the 21st Century has come so far as to be able to eliminate virtually all physical pain. No, assisted suicide is not about pain control; it’s about the illusion of personal control even over death.
Death is not a right. It is an eventuality that will visit us all. There is nothing dignified about withholding water and food or injecting poison into a person’s bloodstream when they are at their lowest point (or the Klingon custom of taking a knife to your own heart). Death with dignity is not an event; it is the natural result of having lived with dignity.
Finally, I really appreciate how the writers handled the reality of life after a spinal cord injury. More than once it was mentioned that people with SCIs can and do live very “normal”, active post injury lives. It is true and the majority of us with spinal cord injuries (and many other disabilities, for that matter) choose to live with our disability and find that there’s still quite a lot to enjoy about our lives.
That being said, ultimately in the show Worf ended up regaining all of his mobility — through a risky and purely experimental procedure. But, that did lead to a pretty great speech on medical ethics by Dr. Crusher.
This episode of Star Trek was a breath of fresh air to come across after what the entertainment industry has put out portraying this issue in recent years. If you don’t have Netflix, you can watch the episode online for free here.
I wish I could say that this is geekiest post I’ve ever done here, but there is this.
Follow-up: After I originally wrote this article a few weeks ago, I was informed by multiple people about another episode of TNG that seemed to be a little more pro-suicide. See: Star Trek, Pope Francis and TOB for the Aged
Dear readers, in just a few hours I will be on the radio in Lexington, KY. Today we will be discussing the bioethical complexities of transhumanism and performance enhancing drugs — which was the subject of episode 3 of BioTalk.
Click the image above to tune in to the Mike Allen Show live at 5pm EDT.
Absolute must-read from Jennifer Lahl at Christianity Today:
The fact that so many people fail to consider the moral implications of IVF suggests that in the age of fertility treatments, surrogates, and modern family-building via parenting partnerships, a woman’s womb has come to be seen as a somewhat arbitrary location. NBC’s The New Normal quips that women are “Easy-Bake Ovens” and children are “cupcakes.”
In Scripture, God affirms that what happens in utero matters and cannot be casually or disrespectfully dismissed. The womb, where God first knits us together (Ps. 139:13-14), is not an arbitrary place for a child to grow and develop. In fact, modern science has proven just how important those 9 months are—for both mother and child.
Renowned marriage and family therapist Nancy Verrier, in her book The Primal Wound, writes about how mothers are biologically, hormonally, and emotionally programmed to bond with their babies in utero as well as at birth. A baby knows his or her mother at birth, and both the mother and the baby will experience grief at any separation at the time of birth. This primal wound is forever present.
In other words, it’s nowhere as easy as the Easy-Bake metaphor. In the case of surrogacy, we can interrupt the natural rhythm for mother and child and risk negative effects. (It is worth noting that surrogacy differs from adoption in that surrogacy intentionally establishes a situation that demands that a woman not bond with the child she is carrying.)
More from me:
The Catholic Church is No Enemy of Science or the Infertile
Sorry, Cryo-Kids, This is The New Normal. “Get Over It”
Porn Not the Only Industry Commodifying Women
‘Reproductive Rights’ Run Amok
What can we do to make peace in the world? As Pope John said, it pertains to each individual to establish new relationships in human society under the mastery and guidance of justice and love (cf. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, [11 April 1963]: AAS 55, , 301-302).
All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs to all of humanity!
To this end, brothers and sisters, I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative. -Pope Francis, Angelus Message for Sunday, September 1, 2013
Let’s pray for an end to violence against all human beings. Everywhere. At every stage of development. Let’s remember that peace begins in our own hearts; our willingness love, to forgive, to see the dignity of every human life — even the unlovable.
We have such a tendency to focus on everything that a disability takes away that we lose sight of all that is still possible. This is the 21st century, where there are incredible opportunities and advancements in medicine and technology that allow people with disabilities to live “normal”, productive and very active lives.
Consider the case of Andy Phelps. At the age of 15, Andy was in a car accident that killed two of his friends and left him without the use of his hands or legs. Today Andy is a video editor, using his mouth instead of his hands to manipulate digital images.
Jordan Ballor writes:
There’s a dangerous tendency in America today to view disabilities of various kinds as insuperable barriers to productive and loving service. There is often an implicit, and sometimes explicit, disrespect of a basic feature of human dignity in the treatment of those with disabilities as merely passive recipients of government aid, the objects of public pity. The reality is that each one of us, created in the image of God, has the capacity to be a productive steward of some kind, and this reality has the potential to reshape our personal perspectives as well as our public policy.
As Rudy Carrasco of Partners Worldwide puts it, “Every single person on the face of the planet is created in God’s image. Everybody has the same heavenly Father. Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility . . . You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that’s waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.”
Andy’s example, and others like it, should transform our thinking about disability and stewardship responsibility. It should also transform our public policy. America is facing a long-term disability challenge of monumental proportions. Recent Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) figures show that a record number of people are on disability today. As Cornell University’s Richard Burkhauser writes, “This recession-induced growth exacerbates the long time trend in SSDI program growth that has resulted in its real expenditures increasing sevenfold, from $18 billion (2010 dollars) in 1970 to $128 billion in 2010, a trend the CBO reports will result in program insolvency as early as 2016.”
The vast majority of people who go on long-term disability never leave the rolls. In many cases, this makes sense. But in other cases, the incentives of disability insurance and the assumptions implicit in our policy and our treatment of those on disability reinforces the lie that those who are disabled have nothing positive to offer. We should encourage those who are disabled, both personally and in our policy, to find ways to serve others, whether in the form of waged work or not. In some cases, this means that people will one day be able to do without public assistance. For others, this will mean serving in other ways while continuing to receive private and public aid.
A friend of mine from college has written a beautiful reflection on marriage based on what she has observed since she herself got married 82 days ago. It’s not what you would expect to hear from a young newlywed.
The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially like when she addresses an article written several months ago on the merits of marrying young, which generated a good bit of discussion in the Catholic blogosphere and beyond:
The whole debate surrounding when to get married and why to get married (or not) seems to focus on broad-spectrum factors like education and life experience and how much you’ve traveled – and people come down on both sides of all those questions, but nobody ever seems to stop and ask: What about love?
So maybe I will do it: What about love? Not Hollywood love, not Taylor Swift song love, but real love, the kind that sees the good in the other person and lifts her up when she falls down and unloads the dishwasher and takes out the trash? Forget about age, or education, or income, or any other kind of externally observable characteristic that fits into a survey question. What if we talked to young women and girls and we said to them: Get married when you find a man you admire, a man who makes you laugh, a man who respects you and sees in you the goodness and beauty you sometimes doubt is there. Get married when you find that man, no sooner and no later.
Thank you, Miriel. In all the discussion I’ve read about when is the best time to get married, one word that has curiously been missing is love. There is a perception that those of us who are still single after having reached our third decade on earth are so because we have made a conscious decision to forego marriage in order to selfishly pursue other personal interests (education, career, etc…). The reality for most of us, however, is simply that we have not yet found he (or she) whom our heart loves.
In October, Human Life International, Nebraska Bishops’ Pro-Life Office and the Archdiocese of Omaha Respect Life Apostolate are hosting a conference in Omaha, Nebraska, on the theme of : Life, Dignity, and Disability: A Faith that Welcomes.
Author Joseph Pearce will be one of the speakers. He writes at HLI’s Truth and Charity Forum:
One has to accept sorrow for it to be of any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world … A priest once said to me, ‘When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life’ (Maurice Baring).
Catholicism is a faith that welcomes life and is welcoming to the disabled because it is a faith that welcomes suffering. It is the Christian’s acceptance and embrace of suffering that is at the heart of his acceptance and embrace of the suffering of others.
This is the “secret of life” disclosed by the fictional priest in Maurice Baring’s last novel, from which the above quote is taken. The acceptance of sorrow or suffering is indeed the secret of life. When we understand that we will understand everything, or, if not everything, we will at least understand the hollowness of the lies and delusions with which the world tries to seduce us.
Read the rest of his lovely essay.