By Kevin J. Jones
The Catholic Church’s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva has taken “strong exception” to a reference to assisted suicide in a special report on the place of the elderly in society, despite its agreement with other aspects of the report.
“We strongly believe that life is a gift that no person has the so-called ‘right’ to end, that death is the culmination of a natural process and no person, even the elderly or suffering person himself or herself, is entitled to cause or hasten the natural process of dying through biomedical or any other means,” explained Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, head of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations and Specialized Agencies in Geneva.
On Sept. 16 he spoke to the 18th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council about its special rapporteur’s study on older persons’ right to health.
Archbishop Tomasi’s criticism focused on a reference about “issues of patient autonomy in respect of deciding to end life,” though he acknowledged that the report’s author did not treat such issues “in the context of the present report.”
The archbishop said that the Church exhorts scientists and doctors to research prevention and treatment of illnesses linked to old age without ever bending to “the temptation to have recourse to practices that shorten the life of the aged and sick, practices that would turn out to be, in fact, forms of euthanasia.”
He said the Catholic Church sees the growing number of aging persons as a “blessing” rather than “a burden on society.” The Church sponsors 15,448 homes for the aged, chronically ill and handicapped persons around the world.
The archbishop cited Pope Benedict XVI’s September 2010 address to a rest home in London. The Pope said that every generation can learn from “the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it.
“Indeed, the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude,” said the Pope.
Despite his objection to the report’s reference to “deciding to end life,” Archbishop Tomasi expressed agreement with many aspects of the report. He agreed that states should allocate more resources for geriatric care and should train health personnel to interact with elderly patients in “an appropriate, considerate and non-discriminatory manner.” The archbishop also noted the special need to protect frail elderly persons against physical and emotional abuse by caregivers or family members.
The increase in the proportion of older persons is “cross-cultural” and the rapporteur was “compelling” to say that protecting older person’s human rights should be of concern to everyone, because every person ages.
The special rapporteur encouraged a shift away from the current biomedical view of aging which sees it as “an abnormal or pathological phenomenon” and “equates advanced age with illness.”