EUTHANASIA DEBATE Theologian: “Life is never useless”
Professor William E. May, moral theologian at the Catholic University of America has written a lucid and important article on the controversial subject of withdrawing or withholding medical treatment (Linacre, August 1990).
Professor May takes strong issue with two highly influential Catholic moralists, Richard McCormick, S.J. (see below) and Kevin O’Rourke, O.P. He regards their position on the withdrawal or withholding of medical treatment as deficient and dangerous. He remains consistent with Catholic teaching on the matter and affirms the body/soul unity of the human person.
This is a crucial point. It is never morally acceptable to end life because one judges that the bodily aspect of his existence is something bad. Neither the body nor life itself can ever be something bad and therefore a justification for choosing death.
At the same time, particular medical treatments may be legitimately rejected because they are bad; that is to say, excessively burdensome to the patient, to others, or even to the community.
Professor May reiterates the importance of this key distinction between life and treatment. It is morally acceptable to reject treatment that is excessively burdensome (or useless), but not to reject life itself; life can never be judged as something bad.
Professor May reaffirms the objective value of the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of health care. Ordinary means are required. But where they are excessively burdensome, extraordinary means can be rejected. Thus, medical treatment is “extraordinary” if “objectively discernible features in the treatment itself, its side-effects, and its negative consequences impose grave burdens on the person being treated or on others.” An individual who has no desire to die may properly decide that life without treatment will be better than life with it. Such a decision is not a choice of death.
May’s position, in agreement with Catholic teaching, is important and has obvious practical significance.
If doctors follow the criteria for withholding medical treatment espoused by McCormick and O’Rourke, it is possible that certain patients who are severely incapacitated and have no potential for attaining relational of spiritual experiences could be denied medical treatment needed to sustain their lives. They would be killed by acts of omission because their lives and bodily states were judged not worthy of being continued.
May argues reasonably and forcefully that the life of the patient/person itself is never burdensome or useless. “Human life, however, heavily burdened and devoid of utilitarian values, is always a great and precious good of irreplaceable persons,” he concludes.