Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.
During the year-and-a-half that I've spent doing A-Levels, since returning to formal education from full-time homeschooling, I've been engaged in a series of running conversations/debates with my math teacher Neil, a socially liberal Marxist who found himself becoming, in his own words, "increasingly reactionary in middle age" about matters religious and social. As an economic lefty to rival Elizabeth Stoker in intensity (if not knowledge or wisdom), I was keen to convince him that his egalitarian economic instincts were a perfect fit with his growing social conservatism. There were raised voices, and a lot of jokes—occasionally even some good ones.
We'd discussed abortion a lot in the context of the Irish debate about the suicide ground, and he'd been sympathetic to my case, but keen to emphasize that he wouldn't make the issue a priority in the same way that I would; and that perhaps my diehard opposition to all abortion, even at very early stages, was utopian and unrealistic.
Then one day, as soon as class was over, he grabbed me and said, with an expression different from his usual impish, slightly sardonic grin: "I think I've had an . . . epiphany."
He'd just heard about the new Belgian law that would allow euthanasia for terminally ill children, and started looking up other cases: Nathan Verhelst, the transgender man who'd ended his own life at 44 because he wasn't loved; Ann G., the anorexic woman who got a psychiatrist to sign off on her death after being sexually abused by another psychiatrist; the unnamed deaf twins who asked to be killed when they discovered they were going blind.
My teacher wondered why Belgium was still allowed to remain a member of the European Union. "The problem with you [pro-life] people," he said, "isn't that you're too extreme, it's that you're not extreme enough! Why aren't you protesting outside the Belgian embassy?" I gave him answers about practicality and prudence, answers that I'm still not entirely satisfied with.
For him, reading about this stuff had thrown everything I'd said about abortion into a completely different light. What he'd realized is that once you concede the principle that some lives are not worth as much as others, that many human lives are not worth living, you undermine the whole edifice of universal human dignity. Once you've made one exception, why not others?
This is going to be one of the areas where "consent-only" morality (a coherent, internally consistent system which holds as its most fundamental principle that you own yourself) is going to have a real, substantial, irreconcilable clash with "agape-only" morality (which holds that you are owned in part by your friends and your family, and owned wholly by God). But it's also an area where Catholics have a strong, compassionate case to make. Great hospice care should become an immediately identifiable "Catholic issue"; and we can use cases like Belgium and the Netherlands as contrasts to paint a more human, more decent picture.
This is, at its root, a family issue: what is the relationship of families to the people who may be thinking about ending their own lives? How can they best serve their sick or aging kin? As Pope Francis put it in his message to the Pontifical Academy for Life:
In the family, one learns that the loss of health can never be a reason for discriminating against any human life. The family teaches about not falling into an individualism that weighs oneself against the others. And it is here, in the family, that "taking care of you" constitutes one of the fundaments of human existence and a moral attitude that must be promoted, and again through values, conscience effort and solidarity. The testimony offered by the family becomes crucial in the sight of every facet of society in its consistent affirmation of the importance of the aged person as he or she is a subject of the community, who has a mission to fulfill, and about whom it is always false to say he or she receives without offering anything in return.