We Help Life to be Lived Until Death, in Serenity and Human Dignity
In 1991, shortly after the European Parliament passed an “assistance to the dying” proposition, Mother Marie- Antoinette (our Superior General at the time) wrote a letter to parliament about the dangers of legalizing euthanasia. As many states pass legislation to legalize assisted suicide, we feel that her words are very relevant today.
Euthanasia violates human dignity rather than upholds it
By Sr. Marie-Antoinette de la Trinite
Superior General of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor
The following letter was written in response to the passage of an “assistance to the dying” proposition by a Commission of the European Parliament on April 25, 1991. This proposition, affirming the principle of euthanasia, was to be voted upon by a plenary session of the European deputies the following autumn.
Mother Marie-Antoinette de la Trinite, superior general of the Congregation of the Little S!sters of the Poor, communicated this letter immediately to the parliamentarians in the countries where the Little Sisters of the Poor have Homes for the elderly.
The danger of the legalization of euthanasia is not limited to Europe. The following lines express the convictions and experience of the Little Sisters of the Poor in this country as well, and invite us to a new reflection on the meaning of the words, “human dignity.”
“Assistance to the dying.” Such is the subject of a proposition adopted on April 25, 1991 by a commission of the European Parliament.
We feel that the confusion caused by the text pertaining to the use of extraordinary-nary means to prolong life, palliative care and euthanasia can easily mislead an uninformed public. Yet behind these extremely complicated phrases, the thought is clear: to give doctors the right to satisfy the request for euthanasia, that is to say, to take a person’s life.
Human dignity does not consist in being able to choose the time of one’s death, but in being aware of the fact that one’s basic right is the right of respect for life, of respect for human dignity. We have no intention to develop, by principles of human and Christian ethics, the meaning of the words “human dignity,” but our 150 years of experience in accompanying the elderly up until the end of their lives authorizes us to make known what has been lived, since our foundation, by 17,080 Little Sisters, and what is being lived today in 30 countries on six continents.
“Making the elderly happy, that is what counts!” Jeanne Jugan used to say, encouraging the Little Sisters to attain this goal by employing means adapted to each person, to his/her possibilities, tastes, past life, health, etc. Making the elderly happy means believing in the value of their life, and we are witnesses of the extraordinary resources of the elderly. Having a center of interest, doing something they like to do, feeling useful, being able to take initiatives, to communicate, to form friendships, maintaining a facilitated relationship with the family, having contacts with youth: these are factors which provide joy and happiness. In addition, when Christians have the possibility to pray in the chapel, to participate in the different celebrations and the singing, their happiness grows deeper. It becomes a source of peace and profound joy. It leads to openness towards others, to self-giving in order to make others happy.
Old age is a stage of life. It is not an illness, but it can cause physical and mental disabilities, which vary widely. These disabilities are accepted all the more readily when those who surround the elderly do not dramatize them or stop there, but take care of the elderly with the same esteem and affection, trying to compensate for these disabilities, making them easier to bear, even combating them and halting their progression. We can affirm that advanced old age, in the final stage, is· extremely variable. We see centenarians who are full of life, and more frequently nonagenarians who are still healthy and active.
The serenity of old age, in our experience, increases by having the security of being treated and taken care of until death.
In a family atmosphere where each one is accepted and, in our country [France] where there is a Christian atmosphere, death is not overshadowed. It is an event that should be lived by each one. It remains trying, anguishing at times and for many, but even though Jeanne Jugan did not mention the term “palliative care” in her advice to the Little Sisters, she nonetheless had its spirit and intuition: using all the means within reach and the collaboration of doctors to care for the sick, to keep them “comfortable” by thoughtful attentions which are so important to them, to visit them, to increase contacts with their families who are always welcome, to stay with them at all times, both day and night. This attentive presence is a form of accompanying the sick. It promotes a trusting atmosphere which pacifies, facilitates the response to questions, and enables the priest or minister to be brought in if this is in keeping with the person’s desire. Real peace reigns so often in the room of the dying person, where the family comes even more willingly since the Little Sister is there if need be. The other residents go there to pay a little visit, to say “good-bye” (not without emotion). But we can say that in these circumstances, “death takes on its true dignity.” It is the confident placing of one’s life into the hands of the One from whom it was received. It is an achievement.
There are differences, of course, and circumstances and people vary. But the goal pursued is to help life to be lived until death, in serenity and “human dignity.”