By Dr Nadia Delicata, Lecturer of Moral Theology at the University of Malta
(Originally published on the Malta Independent)
In her teaching on euthanasia, the Church maintains a clear balance between two truths: that life is a gift from God that is sacred and therefore demands our utmost respect. But also that human life is not absolute: we are made of flesh and blood, our bodies are fragile and death is part of the human condition.
The advance in medical care has created many new opportunities for healing when we experience illness or physical injury. The Church recognizes these medical technologies as good because they help to protect the good that is human life itself. Thus, the Church encourages the use of medical technologies to promote healing and the improvement of the quality of daily living, in particular of the most vulnerable.
But there are times when the medical technologies themselves—sometimes even more than the illness or physical condition—become a burden. The medical procedures no longer seek to heal the person or to improve their life, but simply to postpone the inevitability of death. In this sense, treatments become “extraordinary,” or out of proportion to the good that they seek to achieve. The treatment itself causes more suffering than healing; it disrupts and makes life seem mechanical, rather than improving it. In these cases, the Church offers the comfort of her pastoral care and in particular of the sacraments, to accompany the person who is dying. The Church encourages the continual physical and spiritual comfort of the dying person as they prepare for a new life.
Euthanasia, however, is not about acknowledging the inevitability of death or of dying a peaceful death. Euthanasia is a form of actively taking away the life of a person, and therefore it is a form of killing, just like murder or suicide. Hence the euphemisms that are sometimes used: “assisted suicide” for choosing to take away one’s life, or “mercy killing” for choosing to take away the life of another, whether through actively doing something to terminate a life, or through removing ordinary and necessary treatment that sustains it.
Even more importantly, however, the Church also understands that life in itself is not a “possession”. “Being alive” is how we “are” in the world, how we grow and flourish… and not just alone, but with others as persons in relationship. Thus, while we live, we do not “possess” our life as if it were an object that we can dispose of at will. Rather, through living, irrespective of how vulnerable or insignificant our lives might seem, we participate in the human family and in the world. For the Church these realities are also sacred because God is Creator of the world and God also chooses each one of us to be part of the human family.