It’s beginning to feel like fill-in-the-blanks journalism: A terminally ill person wishes to die on his own terms and so we are walked through his last hours in a happy celebration of the joys of euthanasia.
Some of us have mixed feelings about assisted suicide, especially if you’ve spent any time in a ward of very elderly people, many of whom have no idea of where they are. And, were they cognizant, they might vote themselves off the Earth pretty quickly.
Yes, this is personal. After spending some time at the bedside of my dying father a year ago and seeing how miserable so many of the elderly and sick truly are, I can understand wanting to end it. But there is always that slippery slope when it comes to science, law and doctrine.
Here we have a lyrical New York Times piece about a former Catholic priest arranging his own death. We start here:
VICTORIA, British Columbia -- Two days before he was scheduled to die, John Shields roused in his hospice bed with an unusual idea. He wanted to organize an Irish wake for himself. It would be old-fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail -- he would be present.
The party should take up a big section of Swiss Chalet, a family-style chain restaurant on the road out of town. Mr. Shields wanted his last supper to be one he so often enjoyed on Friday nights when he was a young Catholic priest -- rotisserie chicken legs with gravy.
Then, his family would take him home and he would die there in the morning, preferably in the garden. It was his favorite spot, rocky and wild. Flowering native shrubs pressed in from all sides and a stone Buddha and birdbath peeked out from among the ferns and boulders. Before he got sick, Mr. Shields liked to sit in his old Adirondack chair and watch the bald eagles train their juveniles to soar overhead. He meditated there twice a day, among the towering Douglas firs.
Wait a minute: Chicken legs (not fish) on Fridays when he was a YOUNG priest? Maybe this is a sign of Catholic tensions to come.
Not surprisingly, the locale is in the Pacific Northwest in a part of Canada that the article calls “ground zero for assisted suicide in the country.”
Mr. Shields intended to die swiftly and peacefully by lethal injection, administered by his doctor. Last June, the Canadian government legalized what it termed “medical assistance in dying” for competent adult patients who are near death and suffering intolerably from irremediable illnesses. When his doctor, Stefanie Green, informed him that he qualified, Mr. Shields felt the first hope since a doctor told him more than a year before that he had a rare and incurable disease called amyloidosis, which caused proteins to build up in his heart and painfully damage the nerves in his arms and legs. Having control over the terms of his death made him feel empowered over the disease rather than crippled by it, a common response among Dr. Green’s patients.
As it turns out, the man is in hospice and can barely move. The story of how the 78-year-old man got to this point is quite interesting.
However, what I found most intriguing, and a bit macabre, was the doctor who helped bring it all about. Since Canada had passed this law a year ago, Dr. Green had presided over 35 deaths; almost three a month. In organizing a farewell party for Mr. Shields, the doctor had found a most willing partner.
If service was the biggest theme of Mr. Shields’s life, the other was freedom -- intellectual, spiritual, personal. He was always growing and exploring. In the last few months of his life, he tried a psychedelic drug for the first time and enrolled in an advanced online course on “transcending transpersonal realms.”
That independent spirit made his stay in the priesthood a short one.
He loved rituals, which began with the Catholic Masses of his childhood in New York City. He was the only child of a steamfitter and a teacher, both Irish and devout. Family lore had it that when Mr. Shields was a baby, his grandfather hoisted him up in one hand and proclaimed he would be America’s first pope.
At 17, he enrolled in seminary. By the time he was ordained years later, the Second Vatican Council had convened. Shaken at first by changes the council was recommending, Mr. Shields came to embrace them, especially the use of modern historical criticism in interpreting Scripture.
In his mind, this changed Christ’s message from one of sin’s redemption to pure love. But his was a minority view, and it set him on a radical path at odds with his bosses. He was transferred from his first parish, in Vancouver, and then barred from preaching and teaching at his second posting, in Austin, Tex., after he challenged the pope’s opposition to birth control.
After only four years, he walked away from the priesthood, forlorn and distressed. The decision cost him not only his faith, but also his purpose and livelihood.
To the reporter’s credit, the priest’s after-church life was chronicled in spiritual terms.
While his post-church professional life surged with purpose, Mr. Shields’s search for existential and spiritual answers was slow and meandering, often veering to the fringe.
He studied Gestalt therapy and picked up dowsing, the art of divining energy with copper rods. Finally, a lecture by Brian Swimme, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, changed Mr. Shields’s life. He became a spiritual cosmologist, believing that the universe was conscious and that everything was inextricably connected.
After he was told in 2015 that his condition was terminal, he began seeking for a way to end it all with dignity. It's unclear whether Shields still considers himself Catholic at this point, but here's what the Catholic Church teaches on euthanasia, which you might want to read -- since the Times certainly isn't going to tell you.
At this point, the piece goes in a strange direction with a new sub-head: “From Birth to Death: A Doctor’s Gift.” The emphasis switches to a 48-year-old Jewish obstetrician who saw this new law coming and decided to go into the euthanasia business.
She starts meeting with Shields, who realizes earlier this year that his body was fading fast on him. A “death date” is set for March 24 and Shields begins to see a nobility in his choice.
He also felt like a pioneer. Recently, he dreamed that he was sweeping up large shards of glass from a hallway, making it safe for others who would pass that way after him.
So his wife sends out an email to “John’s Farewell Party.” The article goes through detail after detail of the party, that last glass of wine, the farewell wishes from well wishers and the resoluteness of the participants. Then the following morning, we read detail after detail of the death, which the article re-names as “the procedure.”
Sound familiar? The same journalistic re-branding happens in almost all articles on abortion.
We read about the drug in each syringe, the final paperwork, the instructions to the family, a half-Confucian, half-pagan farewell ceremony and then a recited prayer of St. Francis before the final injections.
Once again there is the recitation of each loving detail, the emphasis on the dying man’s courage and the virtue of planning one's own death.
When I looked at the comments field, I noticed how one reader, a Dutch man named Theo Boer, found the recital quite ominous. His quote:
Do we realize what we are doing by calling this story brave and commendable? Whereas the palliative care options in our Western society are absolutely wonderful (different from 20 years ago), we are now hearing the suggestion that the bravest thing to do is to actively terminate the life of a terminally ill patient. The newest numbers from the Netherlands indicate where this leads us: alone in 2015 we had 6800 euthanasia cases, from being 4000 cases in 2010 and 1800 in 2002. From being exceptional and brave, dying through euthanasia increasingly and rapidly becomes the default way to die for cancer patients. Not for a moment do I have any doubt that this patient was suffering, and not for a moment do I have any doubt that his decision was a voluntary. But what starts as voluntary and brave, will in the longer run be no more voluntary than the decision to use a smart phone or using Wi-Fi. If this narrative becomes normative, be prepared that the whole way we will be dealing with illness, vulnerability, old age, and coping will be totally different 20 or 30 years from now.
That’s what haunts me, too. Because it’s one thing to write lengthy pieces with gorgeous photos about dying people who are lauded for ending it early rather than sticking it out. But what happens, as the man from Holland suggests, when euthanasia becomes the expected thing to do because it’s commendable (it may save the government lots of money) to die quicker than slower? Do the people in this story have any idea of what forces have been set in motion?
If so, we do not read about these kinds of questions here. Yes: "Kellerism" is the word.
The article does not dwell on any alternate voices other than a quick mention of some Christian doctors in eastern Canada who disagree with the new law. More such details would ruin the loving narrative, wouldn't it? And that's what news reports on euthanasia have become: Testaments to the brave and foresighted who have the sense to go out in style and show the rest of us how it's done.
It only says what feels obvious to the writer and no doubt to everyone at the Times: That assisted suicide is the nobler choice. The possibility that there may come a time when it's some people's only choice is never discussed. Some voices do not deserve to be heard.