Her coming off a respirator forces us to seek moral distinctions
Jerika Bolen is 14 years old. For some she has become the new face of the assisted-suicide movement that says (in some countries) if you are mortally ill and in great pain, the circumstances of your death should be of your own choosing and (in other countries) if you are depressed, that’s a good enough excuse to choose to die, too.
Bolen is not depressed, nor is her life bereft of love and friendship — indeed, quite the opposite; she is well-loved by friends and family. She is in great pain, though, and her condition is degenerative; though we aren’t given all the medical details of the case, we’re told that eventually she will not be able to talk and her time on the ventilator will steadily increase with need, until she is fully engaged with it. She is dying, but the death is slow.
It is very tempting to put Jerika Bolen into the classification of other recent faces of the movement who, diagnosed with an incurable condition, have decided to hasten death, controlling its terms rather than being controlled by debilitation. Bolen is not, however, asking for a pill or a needle to be administered to her to end her life. She simply wants to forego using an apparatus that is necessary to keep her alive.
The world will say that this is nobody’s business, but a situation like this is the business of humanity. Particularly at a time when biotechnology is rapidly losing sight of what distinguishes human beings from other creatures, human beings must look at bio-ethical questions, and try to find the lines between what honors the triune body/mind/soul totality of the human loved into being by a triune Creator, and what subverts the human and cheats the Creator.
Experts in bio-ethics privy to the medical details should weigh in on Jerika Bolen’s story, so that all of us might see clearly that there is a line between suicide (assisted or not) and allowing life to run its course, and that while the Church ardently opposes the former, she lovingly embraces the latter. In accepting life and death, the Church recognizes that not every life-sustaining measure is warranted in every situation and that there is a difference between the ordinary care due to everyone and extraordinary care that might be freely chosen or freely refused.
Catholic teaching always favors what is natural over what is artificial, and that can be true even of artificial respiration. Pope Pius XII wrote in his letter, The Prolongation of Life that in “hopeless” cases, treatments such as resuscitation and respirators “go beyond the ordinary means to which one is bound.” The letter speaks mostly to matters of emergency resuscitation, but in a 1992 draft text of a statement by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we read:
The condition of the person, especially those who are dying, e.g. persons in the final stages of [disease] or in the state commonly called a persistent vegetative state must be considered in decisions to discontinue or forego life-sustaining treatment.
The subsequent text, released in July 1992, defined more clearly the “dying person” as one “who has no reasonable hope of recovery.” It cautioned that “rational reflection on the meaning of human life in all its dimensions is indispensable for formulating a moral judgement on the use of technology to maintain life.”
When Pope Saint John Paul II lay dying in March of 2005, his care briefly included a nasal/gastric feeding tube, meant to “improve his caloric intake and promote an efficient recovery of strength…” When he and those around him determined that there would be no further recovery, the feeding tube was removed; simple IV hydration was administered until the pontiff breathed his last. Nothing was done to either hurry or impede his natural death.
Essentially, as far as we can tell from the scant medical details given us in press reports, for Jerika Bolen there will be no further recovery, and so she is seeking to do that same: cease treatment; put aside the machine that has prolonged her life thus far, but that no longer offers her a promise of relief, and allow her natural death to occur.
We who believe in the sanctity of life would argue that while she lives, there is the opportunity to love and be loved — an opportunity that is fundamental to everything else, and therefore a true purpose to choosing to live. But we also believe that there is no moral imperative to use machines to ward off death at any cost, simply because they are available for that purpose.
It is a question for the bio-ethicists, for certain, but the story of Jerika Bolen’s life, and her desire to let her body do what it will without the extraordinary assistance of a respirator is one that must make us pause, and take another look at what we understand about what is an active “assisted suicide” and what is a passive permission to nature.
Let’s keep asking the questions and studying the church teachings, and let’s pray for Jerika Bolen and her family. If you would like to reach out and send a card or letter to Jerika, the family has set up a PO Box:
PO Box 2577
Appleton WI 54912
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