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“Tell me who ghandsAsHeartsets to live. And why?”

That pointed question was asked by National Catholic Reporter blogger Phyllis Zagano in a posting that railed against our slide towards a society where life is cheap and futures disposable. It is a question that needs to be asked loudly, and pointedly, as we sample the potentially toxic mix of technological advancement and self-empowerment.

While recent news about the church’s challenges have (rightfully) focused on the socially ‘hot’ topics involving gay rights, same-sex marriage, and reconciliation of remarried divorced Catholics,  issues at the intersection of Catholic morality, bio-ethics, and personal choice are beginning to loom large for our all in our church.

I write this a couple of weeks after the tragic story of Brittany Maynard, the 26 year old lady who chose the path of suicide to avoid what had promised to be a torturous end caused by incurable brain cancer. Her decision became the immediate hot topic discussed by supporters (those espousing  ‘Death with Dignity’), and critics.

Both the official Vatican response as well as the Pope’s direct words were blunt and to the point: there is no dignity in suicide.

(Before anyone casts words critical of Ms. Maynard’s choice, I suggest reading of what happens to persons with brain cancer. Even a cursory review of the literature will make the most ardent critic drop the stones that were to be cast and walk away in prayer.)

Such issues come down to probably those most emotionally charged word in the Christian’s vocabulary: choice.

In the secular world, we demand information and knowledge so we may make an informed choice. We have such expectations for the products and services we buy, the places we live and the leaders we elect.

We also make choices to purchase drugs and therapies that affect the way we look and the way we feel, always trying to look young enough and feel energetic enough to sidestep the natural processes that would choose otherwise.

But as these choices move into more serious domains, those areas that infringe on the natural processes of birth and death, we begin to stray into dangerous territory.

The problem is that we are used to having choices that make life better, easier, and more convenient for us. Life choices often involve the coming and going of others . Even when we think we are making choices that involve our rights, our actions set examples for those around us and affect those who follow. And we all see that when given information that disappoints – or worse – information that portends a future that we didn’t expect or want, we don’t always choose wisely.

Consider that when presented with diagnostic tests that reliably predict the occurrence of Down syndrome, 90% of these would-be parents choose to abort the fetus. Yet many parents who choose to raise  Down syndrome children insist their experience bears many of the same fruits shared by other parents.

And then there are choices we make to enhance the process of creation.

At its simplest core, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) seems like a promising technique that allows families to bear children which, due to health reasons, they could not conceive. But as genetic testing technologies improve, parents who need to use IVF will soon have the ability to choose the characteristics and traits of their offspring. A recent feature report on CNN touched on the process to create ‘perfect babies’ – in the promo the host made the common sense observation that when given the choice, why wouldn’t parents pick donor cells that demonstrated strong likelihood to result in strong, healthy good looking children.

Once such techniques for genetic modification are perfected for couples who used IVF because of the inability to conceive, how long before genetic modifications are made available to all parents?

With people poking at the cell’s DNA to encourage strength and intelligence, who will worry about stepping on the genes for kindness, artistic creativity, or even spiritual sensitivity? Would parents choose genes for a good sense of humor over the traits that may provide greater financial stability for the future generation? If we choose the good-looking child what happened to the brilliant musician who was offered to us? Do we have any idea of what we are doing?

Fast-forward to end-of-life issues.

The Brittany Maynard case is one of those relatively infrequent (though not rare) circumstances where a person is actually informed of how they will die, and in this case, informed of a process that rightly terrifies.

The Pope may warn against decisions based on a ‘false sense of compassion’, but I somehow don’t think there was anything false about the gut-wrenching emotions her family had to endure.

But from the perspective of our society, do we really want to accelerate, make more easy and convenient, the ability to end life when health fades?  What would remind us of the need to cure disease if termination becomes more cost-effective, more dignified?

If we become too quick to choose the end of life when we see fit, before aging or suffering robs us of the person we want to be,  who will remain to remind the rest of us of the need for compassion?

The church teaches that nothing should interfere with the natural process of creation and death – that is God’s work. There will be families that will struggle to have children, but the answer is not to develop processes that manufacture children to our liking.

End-of-life is to be left the the natural process that God has left with us. And while steps need to be taken to reduce pain and to comfort the sick, we simply cannot accept a societal view that the best way to deal with those who are suffering is to hide or dispose of them.

That said, our church MUST do a better job of educating the flock – not by telling what is right and wrong, but by explaining her teachings in contemporary terms that connect people to the confidence and comfort of Christ-centered decision making.

All families will soon be dealing with some moral decisions as they start families, raise children, and care for elderly parents. Some of these decisions will be very, very difficult with no paths to a happy ending. Those are times when they will need options, both in terms of support from church and in the availability of brick-and-mortar care facilities, so that a choice involving community, support, and love is always an available course of action.

And hopefully, if we find ourselves in circumstances that demand the unthinkable from us, we at least take the time and pray for the strength to do the right thing. And when some of us fall short of sainthood, I hope our church will remember its responsibility to project compassion, mercy and reconciliation.


I had always struggled with the creation story — wondering why God wouldn’t want us to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong – why couldn’t we have that knowledge and take the apple?

But after reflection, I now understand that fruit itself had no special power and imparted no new skill to our mom and dad. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a plain old apple.

The knowledge of doing wrong came simply from Adam and Eve’s choice – the decision to discard what they knew to be true while listening to someone whose intentions had nothing to do with their well being.  The choice to act in their own self-interest – to be like God without listening to His counsel – alone was enough to give them the knowledge of what was wrong. Comparatively, knowing what was wrong also enlightened our first parents of the ‘right’ choice that was discarded.  A choice made, an experience that teaches what is wrong and reminds us of what was right. Out of the garden and into the weeds we go.

It still goes on today – we make choices that are convenient for us, choices that make life easier, for us. When looking for guidance, we too often listen to the voices we want to hear, voices suggesting that our lives can be made better by making choices that are easy – choices with only pleasurable consequences.

But our lives were given to us for something more than our own self-gratification, and lives entrusted to us as parents and caregivers are gifts given by a Creator who doesn’t answer to us. These gifts carry the responsibilities of care, love, and respect.

The gifts of life we receive, in all their forms, aren’t gifts to be returned.


National Catholic Bio-ethics Center

“Children of Choice – Freedom and the new Reproductive Technologies”, John Robertson, Princeton University Press