'A temptation to give up' - Assisted suicide and an urgent plea

A Pillar interview

Editor’s note: Shortly after the publication of this interview, an interdisciplinary committee charged with reviewing euthanasia plans announced they had canceled the Oct. 10 euthanasia of Martha Sepúlveda. Her family says they object to the decision.

Martha Sepúlveda is a Colombian Catholic living with a painful neurodegenerative disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS.

The Washington Post reported this week that Sepúlveda, 51, plans to die Oct. 10 by legally authorized euthanasia. If it occurs, she will be the first person without a terminal prognosis to die by euthanasia in Colombia.

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The Pillar spoke Saturday with William Hughes, a Catholic psychiatrist who is himself living with a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease.

Hughes told The Pillar about his own struggles amid suffering, the source of his hope, and how the Church can respond to a growing acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide around the world.

He also made a personal plea to Martha Sepúlveda, who could not be reached by The Pillar for comment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Hughes, you have Parkinson’s disease, a long-term neurodegenerative disorder. It’s a chronic condition that causes real suffering.

What is your experience, as a Catholic, living with a condition like that?

Well it’s in some ways being Catholic makes it easier because that [suffering] makes sense – it’s not just absurd. [The disease] is a cross, you know, you identify it as a cross, and so that transforms it into something that, in some ways, can be actually joyful as opposed to just something completely negative.

What is to find joy in suffering? I think for a lot of people that’s hard to imagine.

We suffer like anybody else. For me, it’s never been simultaneous, but it’s punctuated [by joy] -- though there are moments of sadness and and you have to fight against it, and to remember that discouragement is never from God.

[Faith] doesn’t stop you from suffering, but in a sense, it can help pull you out, maybe. And then when [suffering] is punctuated with moments with joy, I think it's a supernatural grace to actually achieve joy amid suffering.

There was a story this week in the Washington Post about a Catholic woman in Colombia with another neurodegenerative disorder, ALS, who plans to die this week by legally authorized euthanasia.

Is that the answer to the kind of suffering —

The answer to what question?

To the problem of suffering. Particularly suffering with a chronic and debilitating condition —

Well, life is a chronic condition, isn’t it? I mean, if it’s one year from now or 50 years from now, what difference does it make — the Commandment is clear: “Thou shall not kill.”

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I think for a lot of people, the problem is a crisis of hope. A feeling of hopelessness. And I don’t know if you’ve experienced something similar. Where does hope come from for you?

It’s a divine gift: supernatural hope.

Faith, hope, and charity are the theological virtues, so they come from God and they lead us to God.

For me personally, I feel like I have a kind of a supply of hope most of the time.

But I have struggled with depression for the first time in my life, and I think it’s physical — it's not just the stress or anything of the disease. I think the disease, like a lot of things that affect the brain, like with strokes and stuff — people have terrible depression and it's a very physiological thing.

So in those times, I think you just kind of have to hang on and really fight, because there is a temptation to give up.

And, you know, it’s weird, it’s like, to me, the two wouldn’t necessarily go together, but somehow the idea of suicide presents itself in that moment, which is pretty creepy if you think about it, you know.

In a way it seems almost demonic that all of the sudden that idea could seem attractive.

Mrs. Sepúlveda is saying that God doesn't want her to suffer. It’s hard to argue with that, I suppose. But, you know, it brings up the idea of God’s allowing suffering to happen versus him wishing evil on people, which of course he doesn't do.

Her kids don't want her to do this, I'll guarantee you. I’m speculating, of course, but I’m sure her family really doesn’t want her to do this. You know, she’s going to have one son in the room with her — believe me, he would be very happy if she said, “You know what? I've decided, I changed my mind. I don't want to do this. Let’s go, let's go have lunch somewhere.”

I speculate she doesn’t want to be a burden. And, again, I'm speculating, but she did say that the day is going to come for her where she can’t go to the bathroom without help.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book, “Dependent Rational Animals,” says that when we are suffering, and we become the patient, we’re allowing somebody to practice the virtue of charity.

When you're a patient you’re allowing that nurse, and those who are helping, to exercise charity, and all the other virtues in taking care of you. You know if everybody who had any illness — if you just sort of zapped them of existence — then nobody would develop the patience that you actually have to practice when you’re dealing with all people.

What do you think the Church can to be an alternative to the promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide? What can the Church do, concretely, to help people who are dealing with serious and chronic suffering.

I think the Church needs to continue to do its mission, to say what it is — and as they say, it’s not a museum of saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.

The Church has real power. God gave Peter power. And the priests have certain powers that the Church has power to offer. So it’s a real thing — it’s not magic, but the sacraments bring healing.

In this particular concrete circumstance, the Church continues to proclaim the truth. As Pope, John Paul II mentioned in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” when he talks about Emmanuel Levinas, and then the philosophy of the face. You imagine the human face looking at you saying, “please don’t — do not kill me.”

You know that's the commandment in concrete expression. The Church has to stand up. It can’t be a cowardly Church. You know, it can’t be a Church that is afraid to offend. It has to be a contradiction to the world, which says that suicide makes sense.

Jacques Maritain was going to commit suicide, but he found salvation, he and his wife, in the Church and in the sacraments.

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What do you think people suffering, with chronic conditions or otherwise, who might be considering suicide, need to hear from the Church?

Well, they have to know that they’re loved.

Pope Benedict, or Cardinal Ratzinger, in “Introduction to Christianity” makes a truly profound statement that I paraphrase with my patients and their families like this: We hear in our society that you have to love yourself before you can love others. But what Cardinal Ratzinger says is there’s something even more fundamental than loving yourself, and that is knowing that you are loved.

So I think people have to know that they are loved, whether that be by their family or by a power greater than themselves, as it were. I think that they have to know that that they’re loved. And how do we do that but by acts of service?

I am wondering with all the publicity if Pope Francis himself might give Señora Sepúlveda a call. I think that would be a really smart thing for him to do, for a lot of reasons.

You know, I think Monday is Columbus Day. And it would be really nice not to have one more person die.

If you could speak to Martha Sepúlveda directly, what would you say to her?

I would ask her to, if she’s a Catholic with some knowledge of the faith, to please pray to her guardian angel to protect her from harm.

And I guess the final thing I would say is: She would say she’s not out to hurt anyone else, so it sort of comes down to whether we’re allowed to commit suicide, whether somehow that’s an exception to the commandment. 

In that vein, a story that I tell a lot to kids I see in psychiatry practice is this: My aunt was a school nurse in San Jose for many years, and she told me this story that there was this boy who came to her and was really denigrating himself, putting himself down. She looked at him and she said, “Don’t talk about Phillip that way! He’s a friend of mine!” 

The point being, I would say to her, “Don’t treat Señora Sepúlveda that way! Don’t take her life! She means something to us, she’s our sister, in the human race and in the Church. Don’t do this to our sister!” In other words, get her to look at herself from the outside.

“Don’t kill Señora Sepúlveda, she’s a dear member of our family, don’t kill her.”

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A guest post by
Joe Slama is a freelance reporter and a graduate student in Greek & Latin. He is based in Washington, D.C.