Book Review - When It's Right to Die: Conflicting Voices, Different Choices

November-December 1995

When It's Right to Die: Conflicting Voices, Different Choices
Dick Westley
Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT
1995, 209 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

In November 1994 Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 16, which would have made the state the first place in the world where it was legal for physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to dying patients. A month later, however, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan issued a preliminary injunction blocking enactment of the law until serious constitutional questions about it could be answered. Then, on August 3, 1995 — apparently satisfied that he had the answers to those questions — Hogan struck down Oregon's assisted suicide law.

But the debate goes on. Dick Westley, a Catholic writer, has come out with a book arguing that active voluntary euthanasia (AVE) is justified under certain circumstances. Westley attempts to dismantle the traditional theological, moral, philosophical, legal, and medical arguments against AVE, saying that direct euthanasia should at times be morally permissible. Westley does not intend, he says, to encourage or promote AVE. His quarrel, rather, is with those who categorically condemn persons and families that find it necessary to opt for AVE.

In his book's preface and introduction, Westley addresses the "experts" on the topic: theologians, philosophers, lawyers, and health professionals. He reminds them that ordinary people are increasingly coming to favor euthanasia as an option that is both reasonable and compatible with religious belief. He tells the experts that they are, in fact, ignoring the reasoned experience of persons who have been present at the deaths of loved ones and who do not feel guilty or fearful discussing the issue. After all, death will not just go away.

Westley divides his book into two parts. In part 1 ("The Denial of Death"), he argues that Western society is terrified by the reality of death and that this terror is behind the often "heroic," inappropriate measures employed in attempts to keep dying persons alive. In his first chapter, Westley reviews the work of Viktor Frankl and Ernest Becker; and, in his second, he offers anecdotal testimony from persons facing death in mature, realistic ways. In chapters three and four, the author offers some fine insights into the spirituality of dying, and he argues that both living and dying should be centered in communities of faith.

In part 2 ("The People Vs. the Experts"), Westley systematically presents the experts' arguments against euthanasia and then counters with his own positions. His fifth chapter suggests the proper terminology for euthanasia. Then, in his sixth through tenth chapters, Westley lays out arguments as "For the People" and "against" the magisterium, traditional theologians, some philosophers, the law, and healthcare professionals.

One of Westley's main arguments involves amending the traditional Catholic position on euthanasia without necessarily annulling or abrogating that position. The reason for this is that the official Catholic position reveals an inherent contradiction, he claims. Westley refers to the 1992 pastoral statement, Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections, issued by the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

The NCCB document states: "Our Church views life as a sacred trust, a gift over which we are given stewardship and not absolute dominion." Westley sees the statement as contradictory, for a problem arises when the words "gift" and "stewardship" are juxtaposed when describing human life. Westley raises the point that either life is given to us unconditionally as a gift or it was never given to us but merely temporarily entrusted to us. Westley feels strongly that the Catholic tradition has to adopt a single position: "Either we hold our lives as stewards, and then it is strange to call it 'gift,' or life is truly a gift, in which case the notion of stewardship seems misapplied" (p. 76).

In his conclusion Westley says he hopes to "open Christian minds and hearts to a more compassionate view of active euthanasia and to the realization that one can be a good Christian without condemning active euthanasia" (p. 175). He also outlines a strategy that might change the attitudes of religious people toward death and dying.

The author has attached to each chapter a series of dialogue questions that discussion groups will find very useful. He has also provided three appendixes ("Dissent — Against the Magisterium"; "The Present State of Dying"; and the American Medical Association's "Principles of Medical Ethics"), an excellent bibliography, and an index.

"The people" and "the experts" will no doubt continue to debate humanity's recurring questions about this present life, the life to come, and how the two are related. Although Westley challenges many of the traditional arguments against euthanasia, the soundness of his basic premises is questionable. For example, I do not agree with his argument that the NCCB document contains a contradiction. Rather, I understand the document to be consistent with the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, which values life from the vantage points of "gift" and "stewardship." In fact, herein lies the dynamic tension inherent in creation itself. The values of gift and stewardship are not contradictory but rather complementary. Still, Westley makes the point that we cannot ignore the sensus fidelium. Moral reflection and analysis must take into account the experiences of God's people.

Larry Plutko
Director, Office of Theology and Ethics
Sisters of Providence Health System


Copyright © 1995 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Book Review - When It's Right to Die - Conflicting Voices, Different Choices

Copyright © 1995 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.