Debates about physician-assisted suicide (PAS) seem to be everywhere these days. In just the past few months, California’s PAS legislation took effect, the pro-PAS film Me Before You hit theaters, and Jean Vanier —founder of the L’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities —cautiously supported legalizing the practice.
As a completely blind Catholic, I am deeply invested in figuring out how Christians can prevent the cultural normalization of physician-assisted suicide. This unquestionably involves continuing to proclaim the sanctity of life, and to seek political protections for society’s most vulnerable members.
But my experiences have convinced me that these approaches will never eradicate the market for legalized suicide completely. To succeed, we must also recognize our need to improve our concrete witness to the inherent value of disabled persons, particularly by welcoming them more fully and authentically into our communities.
As Pope John Paul II taught us, our very nature as human beings intrinsically orients us toward community. We bear the image and likeness of a Triune God, comprised of three Persons joined in perfect, loving communion.
Designed to yearn for a union like the one that joins the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we cannot be the creatures God made us to be apart from relationships to others. John Paul understood the importance of community so deeply that he described those living without it as “dehumanized,” effectively living a form of “self-imprisonment.”
Sadly, this degrading isolation characterizes the lives of myriad disabled persons. So many live either confined and neglected in homes and institutions, or walk among us laboring under the weight of unfathomable loneliness.
I am not surprised, then, that along with desires to control death and avoid pain, data show that fears about decreasing independence, becoming a physical burden, and losing the ability to participate in meaningful life activities can motivate a person’s decision to seek physician-assisted suicide.
At bottom, these factors reflect the widespread, internalized belief that living with a disability means experiencing life sequestered from society, destined to live out one’s days as the perpetual and helpless recipient of unilateral beneficence.
Christians can allay these fears only by changing the cultural assumptions surrounding disability. We must use our lives to testify that independence and dependence take multiple forms, and that the financial costs of disability can never outweigh the richness of a life fully and joyfully lived.
But to do this, we must also try harder to draw our disabled brothers and sisters—especially those deeply or completely isolated from human fellowship—into our communities.
I propose three ways for us to begin this task. Though general, they encompass the habits I’ve seen in able-bodied Christians devoted to befriending and including their disabled peers.
First, “be not afraid.” Like many unfamiliar social situations, the foreignness of disability may make us uncomfortable or shy. Personal interaction helps quell this fear by teaching us to focus on the entire person, not just his condition.
Even so, at first we may feel awkward and embarrassed as we learn how to interact and what to say. We may even give offense a time or two. But Christ’s parables of the lost coin and sheep demonstrate that learning to love those who look, move, or speak differently takes significant effort and repeated, intentional acts of the will.
We must put aside the desire to avoid discomfort if we want to step faithfully and courageously into God’s service.
Second, practice true charity and mercy. Befriending a disabled person—especially a severely disabled or highly isolated person—usually requires both virtues.
To modern ears, “charity” conjures up images of benefactors unilaterally giving from their surplus to the helpless and pitiable. But this conception fosters the very view of the disabled that we need to fight – that they are passive objects rather than active, self-directing persons.
Relationships built on real charity, by contrast, are fundamentally reciprocal, meaning that each party both receives as well as gives something of value to the other. Christ exemplified this reciprocity at the Cross, where He loved us both by pouring Himself out completely and by willingly receiving the merciful gestures of His followers.
In imitation of Him, we not only must extend sacrificial, selfless Christ-like love to others, but also remain constantly aware of our need for the same. True love toward the disabled, then, affirms their fundamentally equal dignity and personhood by recognizing they are as capable of contributing to our own personal growth through their charitable acts as they are capable of benefitting from our acts of mercy.
Third, supplement social media with personal encounters such as individual conversations and personal invitations. The increasing tendency to organize events through social media limits natural opportunities for disabled people to enter communities.
A disabled person must possess immense courage and self-confidence to walk into a roomful of strangers, assert her needs, and potentially ask those strangers to modify their plans on her behalf.
Perhaps she can’t physically access the venue in her wheelchair. Maybe she cannot drive but fears a request for help will impose too greatly on another’s time. Perhaps he cannot play sports without adaptations, and so he risks becoming a forgotten observer on the sidelines. Perhaps she experiences sensory overload and panic attacks in crowded pubs.
These represent some of the real, lived difficulties faced by people with disabilities, difficulties that we can only address through personal encounters that teach us how to offer a ride, notice physical accessibility barriers, suggest changes to the game, and become a calming presence when needed.
Learning to notice and engage in one-on-one conversations with disabled people creates a more comfortable atmosphere in which disabled persons can express their concerns. Likewise, it manifests the truth that, rather than being burdens that law or duty compel communities to accommodate, disabled people are a genuinely desired and valued presence.
Finally, working together to form relationships based on innovative or adapted forms of community provides a living witness to the Christian belief that our value comes not from our ability to perform certain tasks, but from the unique way that each irreplaceable person contributes to the human family.
Though woefully incomplete, these suggestions are designed to start a broader discussion about promoting a culture of life with respect to the disabled. Beginning to practice these and other creative ideas will bolster the power of our witness, thus allowing able-bodied persons not only to profess with their lips but also believe in their hearts that a disabling diagnosis is not analogous to life imprisonment without parole.
Only from this perspective can we achieve the cultural conversion required to relegate assisted suicide to its rightful place as an unthinkable evil, unfit for a just society.