By Tom Grenchik
November 26, 2008
"If there is someone who considers her dead, let them leave her to continue with us, who feel she is alive... let us have the freedom to love and give ourselves to one who is weak."
-- the Nuns of the Misericordine Order
In mid-November, the news from Italy looked bleak for a 37-year-old woman named Eluana Englaro. News reports stated that Eluana's elderly father had been fighting in court for 17 years to let her starve to death. And on November 13, Italy's highest court awarded him that false "right." It seemed the case was closed.
Eluana's father had conquered the court system, but would he conquer a dedicated group of women religious? The Nuns of the Misericordine Order have been lovingly caring for his daughter for the past 14 years, and when the court caved in, they stepped up. In their appeal to continue to care for Eluana they stated: "If there is someone who considers her dead, let them leave her to continue with us, who feel she is alive...let us have the freedom to love and give ourselves to one who is weak. Our hope, and that of many like us, is that the death by hunger and thirst of Eluana, and others in her condition, will not be carried out."
The courage and tenacity of these women religious was inspiring. Bishops and cardinals, lay persons and organizations, and doctors and politicians began to speak out. This has created a local "culture of life" that is making it quite challenging for Eluana's father to find another facility willing to starve his daughter to death, the same long and tortured death that Terri Schiavo endured four years ago in our country.
A car accident sixteen years ago left Eluana in what some call a "vegetative state." Eluana is not terminally ill. Like each of us, she is a person of immeasurable worth and dignity. All Eluana needs physically is basic care, including the food and water that each of us takes for granted every day. And there is no doubt that the heroic sisters who now stand by her side are giving her the most loving care possible.
Patients, or their proxies empowered to speak for them, have a moral right to reject extraordinary treatments that are too burdensome for the patient. But no one has a right to deprive them of basic care. Time and again, the Church has reminded us that providing warmth, hygiene, food, water and basic comfort are normally required forms of care, not exotic medical treatments. We can reject medical treatments as too burdensome, but we must never reject life itself because we see a human life as burdensome.
Let us pray hard for Eluana and the many others like her. May our world see her as the gift that her "sisters" so clearly recognize, and not as a burden. Pray too, for the successful campaign by the Nuns of the Misericordine Order, and all those whom they have inspired. We must halt society's descent into a culture where death is seen as the solution to medical, social and economic problems. Lives hang in the balance.
Tom Grenchik is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.