Recently, I spent a few days at a conference that dealt with many issues, including euthanasia, that have preoccupied healthcare professionals in recent months. Although I am not a doctor, I attended the MaterCare International Conference for Catholic obstetricians committed to respecting human life at all stages.
As it turned out, as a lay person, I was in good company at the event. Other non-physicians also attended. In the midst of a busy holiday trip, the conference was a welcome break – a chance to ponder some challenging ethical issues, away from the thousands of tourists milling about St. Peter’s Basilica, just metres from the conference venue.
The conference held some surprises. Many Catholics are familiar with the story of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, the Catholic doctor who sacrificed her life to save the life of her unborn baby. Gianna Molla was canonized in 2004. St. Gianna’s daughter, saved by her mother’s sacrifice, is now an adult and was one of the conference speakers.
A devout Catholic, Vincent Kemme, stands apart from many scientists in a fundamental way. He does not believe resistance to euthanasia can succeed if it is purely secular. In Canada, many who oppose the practice — along with assisted suicide — do so on the grounds that it’s unreasonable, unnecessary and harmful to society, but they often go no further.
Kemme argues that euthanasia is a spiritual problem. The practice has sadly gained the most traction in the Netherlands. About 6,000 people will be put to death there this year, up from 2,000 cases only a few years ago. Kemme argues Dutch society has become largely secular, effectively cutting God out of the picture. He believes it is no coincidence that euthanasia has made the greatest inroads there, although the number of cases in Belgium is also on the rise.
By largely excluding God, the Dutch have done what secular philosophers only contemplated. They have substituted man for God, replacing divine law by human reason, which they consider supreme. Despite the grim trend in the Netherlands — a government report some years back noted involuntary euthanasia was on the rise — Kemme is not without hope for the future.
He believes the solution to the euthanasia problem lies in a return to God and prayer. A Catholic group he belongs to practises daily prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, underscoring that Catholics should avoid judging those involved in euthanasia, recalling the Church’s longstanding distinction between the sinner and the sin. He believes that resistance to euthanasia will succeed only if we oppose peacefully, without judging. “There is no room for aggression,” he told conference attendees.
St. Gianna Molla
For Gianna Beretta Molla, the path to sanctity began in late 1961 with an unwelcome event: the diagnosis of a uterine tumour during the early stages of her pregnancy. At the time, the attending surgeon offered abortion as an option, one that would very likely save Gianna’s life and allow for future pregnancies, should she so choose. In six years of marriage, this was her sixth pregnancy.
Yet, abortion was one option that St. Gianna Molla never entertained. Asked what other options remained, the surgeon offered one with potential, at least from her perspective. He could surgically remove the benign tumour and allow the pregnancy to come to full term. This option was risky for baby and mother, but offered one certainty: there would be no abortion.
The child was born, and named Gianna. Years later, her father, Pietro Molla, related the sequence of events to his daughter — now a geriatrician in Italy — also a speaker at this conference in Rome. She spoke lovingly of her parents and told the story in her own words:
“Mama prayed that the Lord would save her life and mine,” she said. “Two weeks before the delivery, she told my father, ‘Pietro, if you have to decide between the baby’s life and mine, do not hesitate: choose the child.’”
As it happened, when the delivery took place, it was safe and the newborn was healthy. For her part, St. Gianna Molla survived the delivery, but her condition worsened. In only a few hours, she developed a high fever and severe abdominal pains that did not dissipate.
“After a week of agony, during which Mom often repeated the words, ‘Jesus, I love you,’ her condition continued to deteriorate. She did not want to die in hospital, and so was returned to our family home, where she died, aged 39.”
Gianna, the daughter, named after her mother, has had many years to reflect on the lives of her parents. “Both the lives of Mom and Dad were the occasion of great joy, but also of great suffering,” she said.
Recalling the years her father carried on after his wife’s death — Pietro lived into his nineties until his death a few years ago — his daughter related something he said before his death. “Eternity is not enough for me to thank the Lord for the graces he has sent, in particular, through your mother’s canonization.”
Reflecting on her parents’ lives, Gianna offered her own thoughts, invoking the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Our Heavenly Mother has asked us for an unconditional ‘yes’ to, and our humble acceptance of God’s will, even when we don’t understand it,” she said. “My [experience] teaches me that the Way of the Cross is the way of joy: when we have the Lord on our side, when we follow his holy way, and see everything in the light of faith.”
- Presentations from MaterCare’s Rome 2017 conference are accessible online at the MaterCare Media website, at www.matercare.com