March Madness, Vasectomies and the Really Manly Man

In Spring a young man’s fancy turns to…. vasectomies??

You may have seen something of this in the news this week. Apparently, some urologists have noted as much as a 50% increase in the number of vasectomies scheduled during or just before NCAA basketball’s MARCH MADNESS tournament.

The reasoning is this: If you’re going to be lounging around on the couch for a couple of days anyway, eyes glued to the television screen watching college basketball, why not have that vasectomy you’ve been thinking about?

One clinic—Urology Limited of Elgin, Illinois—has even advertised a new clinical promotion this week, offering what they term a “3-Point Shot Plan”. The Plan includes one vasectomy, one free pizza, and one weekend excuse to watch college basketball.

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The American Urological Association reports that the vasectomy is one of the most common birth control methods, after condoms, hormonal methods and tubal ligation. With roughly 500,000 performed each year across America, a vasectomy is a fairly simple procedure, typically taking only 15 to 20 minutes.

The procedure involves cutting and sealing the vas deferentia, also called the ductus deferentia—two thick-walled tubes in the male reproductive system that transport sperm from the epididymis, where they are stored prior to ejaculation. After the surgery, men are advised to limit their activity and to rest for one or two days before resuming normal activity.

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So, our contemporary culture asks, if you feel that your family is just the right size, and if you’re going to be sitting around on the couch all weekend anyway, why not just take this opportunity to get yourself “fixed” so that you don’t have to worry about condoms or birth control pills?

Well, here’s one reason: The Catholic Church teaches that vasectomies, like other forms of intentional birth control, are always sinful. Instead, married couples are asked to allow God to be God—to welcome His gift of new life, according to his plan. In some cases, a couple may determine that for good reasons (such as health, financial concerns, or family size), they may for a time prefer not to bring another child into the world. For those couples who, after prayer, determine that God is not calling them to have another child at this time, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a suitable alternative to surgical or chemical birth control.

What makes NFP different from those other methods of pregnancy prevention? NFP is based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle. No drugs, devices, or surgical procedures are used to avoid pregnancy.

NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife.

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But don’t take my word for it.

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae, explained that the Church always opposes actions which prevent procreation:

. . .the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children . . . Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” (Humanae Vitae)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the objection to sterilization or contraception another way:

The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2399)

And Pope John Paul II, quoted in L’Osservatore Romano in 1983, said,

Contraception is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as to be never, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.” (Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano, October, 10, 1983)

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So who are the Really Manly Men to whom I refer in the title?

Oh, that’s easy:

  • Really Manly Men are the men who love their wives enough to seek their good, and not to lead them into sexual sin by encouraging or forcing contraception upon them.
  • They are the men who see God in His creation, and most especially in His most precious creation, a child—and who stand up to the challenge of raising up children for the Lord. Really Manly Men are not afraid to say “yes”, to learn about the reasons for the Church’s seemingly difficult teachings.
  • Really Manly Men love their wives and their children, more than they love their own sexual gratification.

As Bishops Draft Statement on Assisted Suicide, “Dr. Death” Succumbs Due to Natural Causes

People don’t read much any more.

And they don’t listen so much, either.

This presents an imposing challenge for the U.S. Bishops, who have the responsibility for clearly elucidating Catholic teaching on contemporary moral issues. 

We all know people who are self-identified Catholics, yet who deeply misunderstand or have never heard the clear teaching of the Church on flashpoint issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and bioethical issues including stem cell research and in vitro fertilization.

Shift in Public Attitudes Toward Assisted Suicide – The information shortfall was brought front and center this week when a Gallup Poll released May 31 showed that Americans are closely divided on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Asked whether assisted suicide was morally acceptable or morally wrong, nearly half of respondents—45%—believed it was acceptable to take a life if the person was ill or for some other reason he wanted to die.

This sobering statistic means that for many ordinary Catholics in the pew, assisted suicide is just another option in the decision regarding end-of-life care.  It’s something to be considered for mom and dad, or for oneself, should illness or pain make continuing life on God’s timetable somehow inconvenient. 

So in two weeks, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will step up to approve a proposed statement on the topic of assisted suicide.  The document,  To Live Each Day with Dignity, will address the hardships and fears of patients facing terminal illness, and the importance of life-affirming palliative care. 

Highlights of the Document – The bishops teach that assisting an individual to commit suicide is not true “compassion” since its goal is not to eliminate suffering, but to eliminate the patient.  In contrast, true compassion seeks the good of the other—meaning, true compassion helps to alleviate suffering and provide comfort, while validating the individual’s true worth.

The statement continues, explaining that acceptance of assisted suicide results in a decrease of freedom.  If suicide is an option, then it can too easily become a responsibility, as medical bills pile up and care of the patient may seem to be “too much trouble.”  As evidence of this, the bishops cite the situation in the Netherlands, where acceptance of assisted suicide has progressed to involuntary euthanasia.

Assisted suicide, the bishops add, is a poor substitute for pain control (palliative care).  There is a risk that with the easy availability of assisted suicide, families and medical caretakers will stop short of doing all that could be done to help an aged patient.  Rather, we should follow what Blessed John Paul II called “the way of love and true mercy”—caring for the patient until such time as God calls him or her home.

Why now? – In announcing that this would be an agenda item for their June General Assembly in Seattle, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (Committee on Pro-Life Activities) explained that there has been relatively little movement on this area since Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s much-touted killing spree in the 1980s and early ‘90s. 

However, assisted suicide has reemerged in the public eye recently, as organizations such as Georgia’s “Final Exit Network,” following guidelines outlined in Oregon-based “Death and Dying” founder Derek Humphry’s best-selling suicide how-to manual Final Exit, assisted in perhaps 200 suicides before the federal government stepped in to investigate and prosecute in 2009.  So-called “exit guides” visited the ill and infirm in their homes, teaching them how to suffocate themselves utilizing a helium tank and a plastic hood.

Michigan’s Bishops Had Responded in 1997 – This will be the first time the USCCB as a body has addressed the issue of assisted suicide on a national scale.  However, the bishops of the State of Michigan had issued a pastoral letter on the topic back in 1997, in response to the suicide campaign launched by Michigan-based suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed “Dr. Death.”  On the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross (September 14), the bishops of the seven dioceses in Michigan, concerned about the confusion and anxiety on moral questions surrounding dying and death, had issued a pastoral letter to Catholics of the state of Michigan, titled “Living and Dying According to the Voice of Faith.” 

This Pastoral Letter is divided into two parts:

  • a summation of Catholic theology on dying and death; and
  • an explanation of why the Church professes these beliefs, and how we can find peace for ourselves and our families by living and dying according to the voice of faith.

 Acknowledging that death and dying are not easy, Michigan’s bishops said:

For many people the dying process is especially frightening because it seems to be the final and most complete moment of isolation, separation and loneliness. We imagine being caught in unending physical agony with no one who could possibly understand, much less comfort us. Following the voice of fear, we run away from death and desperately try to put it out of mind and sight—as far and as long as possible. And when it seems that death can no longer be avoided, we are naturally tempted to consider a quick escape or exit.

In the face of these questions and struggles, as a Church we have the good news of our faith in the Death-Resurrection of Jesus. We proclaim a message of hope: no one has to die alone or unwanted, in terrible physical pain or psychological distress. We put our faith and hope into concrete expression by promising to share our life journey with one another. As brothers and sisters in a family of faith, we live and die together.

Five Last Things - The letter cites the work of Dr. Ira Byock, President of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, who listed the “five last things” which people most want or need at the end of their lives: granting forgiveness, seeking forgiveness, expressing gratitude, demonstrating love, and saying good-bye. The compassionate presence of family and friends sanctifies the dying process by allowing these steps to occur among loving, supportive people.

You can read the rest of their statement, as well as questions for additional reflection, here.

Dr. Kevorkian Died This Week—of Natural Causes

It’s worth noting that Dr. Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed “Doctor Death” by Time magazine, when he passed away this week at age 83, did not in the end seek the “comfort” of suicide for which he had campaigned during his long career. 

Sometimes hailed as a “hero” who sought to end the terrible suffering of the terminally ill, Dr. Kevorkian functioned from a less than altruistic motive:  He had a passion for human experimentation, what he called (in his seminal work Prescription Medicide) “obitiatry.”  In his own words:

I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim… It is not simply to help suffering or doomed [his term for non ill people who want to die, for example the people at Jonestown! p 198] persons kill themselves–that is merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) that nobody in his or her right mind would savor… What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish–in a word, obitiatry… has a complete report regarding the adulation Kevorkian has received in the media following news of his death.  Read the complete story here.

But Dr. Kevorkian, broken as he may have been, remains a child of God.  The Catholic Church recognizes this, and offers prayers for his soul—even while striving to negate the damage his distorted lifeview has wrought in society.  The Archdiocese of Detroit released the following statement:

Left out in much of the commentary on the death of Jack Kevorkian is the sobering and deadly legacy he leaves behind. May God have mercy on his soul and on the scores of confused, conflicted, and, at times, clinically depressed victims he killed.

The Catholic Church holds all human life sacred. It is both ironic and tragic that Kevorkian himself was afforded a dignified, natural death in a hospital, something he denied to those who came to him in desperation, only to be poisoned and have their bodies left in places such as vans and motel rooms.

May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, by the mercy of God rest in peace.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? Our Government’s Lopsided Policies Toward the Developmentally Disabled: You Can’t Call Them a Name, But You Can Kill Them at Will

It would be laughable, were it not so tragic.

On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed into law S. 2781, “Rosa’s Law.” Introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2009, Rosa’s Law changes references in many Federal statutes that currently refer to “mental retardation” to refer, instead, to “intellectual disability.”

This is well and good. We will no longer use a term which has become demeaning to certain individuals who, through no fault of their own, have impaired learning skills.  The Federal government’s terminology will be aligned with that of the American Psychiatric Association and the health division of the United Nations.

The problem, though, is that many—in fact, a majority—of the individuals whose feelings are “protected” never have the opportunity to worry about what others might call them.  That’s because with the expanded use of prenatal screening, pregnant women can know whether the child they carry has a disability, such as Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome).  And sadly, when informed that the child she carries will be born with Down syndrome (and at the urging of her physician), 92% of mothers choose to abort.

Perhaps it is fear that drives this staggering statistic: fear that they lack the strength and knowledge to accept and raise a special needs child, fear that society will be unkind.  Or perhaps it’s selfishness, bred in a society that expects, even demands, that life’s journey will be an easy ride.

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My husband and I have been blessed with three talented and healthy children.  I do, though, have two very poignant memories of Down syndrome children.

When my own children were young, I taught a Saturday morning catechism class.  Just down the hall were the “special needs” students; and I remember that one morning in particular, one of them was not feeling well.  The sick student lay on a couch in the program director’s office, waiting for her parents to come.  And around her, unbidden but unwilling to leave their sick friend, the entire class stood in silent sympathy—stroking her cheek and her hair, kissing her fingers, offering a blanket or a drink of water.  And loving her.  Loving, because that’s what they do best.

Years later, I got to know a young woman with Trisomy 21 who, with her parents, attended daily Mass at the Catholic ministry where I worked.  She couldn’t remember all the complicated responses during the Mass, but she added her exuberant “Amen” to ours.  And she always recognized one longer prayer, and popped in one of her own.  When the community prayed “Lord, we give you thanks and praise…” she belted out her own simple but heartfelt prayer, “THANKS AND PRAISE!!”

I’m sure that God, looking down from His Throne, smiled at her sincere and simple expression of love.  I can only hope that my miserable, distracted attempt at worship was accepted as well—especially since I was in such good and holy company.

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Sarah Palin, on the campaign trail, described how she felt when she learned, after 12 weeks of pregnancy, that the child she was carrying had Down syndrome.  “I said, ‘God, I don’t think I can handle this. This wasn’t part of my life’s plan.’”

But Palin went on to tell of her decision to continue the pregnancy and keep the child. She described her now-two-year-old son Trig as her family’s “greatest blessing,” and said he was “God whispering in my ear, saying, ‘Are you going to trust me? Are you going to walk the walk or are you going to talk the talk?’ ”

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There is criticism among physicians and ethicists for a policy which encourages abortion of Down syndrome fetuses.  Commentator George Will called it “eugenics by abortion.”  Dr. David Mortimer, in Ethics & Medicine, wrote that “Down syndrome infants have long been disparaged by some doctors and government bean counters.”  Even the controversial bioethicist Dr. Peter Singer of Princeton argued that Down syndrome “is not so crippling as to make life not worth living from the inner perspective of the person with the condition.”  (Of course Singer, to his detriment, believes that children are not “persons” until they are two years of age, and that their parents should be permitted to kill them until that time.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2276) notes that “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.  Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.”

LORD, PLEASE GIVE OUR SOCIETY the strength and the grace to see that the lives of these most vulnerable of your people are important.  Help us to model the virtues which come so naturally to them:  a hopeful spirit, a cheerful heart, and an unquestioning faith, and above all, a deep and abiding love.  Amen.