I’m sure many of you followed the recent stories in the news about Jerika Bolen, a 14-year-old girl from Appleton who suffered from Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, a progressive, painful, and incurable disease.
Jerika and her mother received a lot of media attention when Jerika made the decision, supported by her mother, to discontinue the treatment of her disease, which would quickly lead to her death. A special prom was celebrated in her honor in July, and Jerika died in hospice in Sheboygan Falls on September 22nd.
For many, Jerika Bolen has become the most recent face of the assisted suicide or “right-to-die” movement. Her death comes at a time in which there has been increased media attention and discussion on these controversial issues. The beginning of June saw the release of the popular “chick flick” movie Me Before You, which took up the theme of assisted suicide as a personal choice that should be accepted. And, last October, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the End of Life Option Act, legalizing assisted suicide in his state. Now, hearing the news about Jerika, some of you might be wondering how we as Catholics should respond.
Well, I must say that up to this point, it has been rather difficult to make a definitive statement or judgment on her situation. News reports have given few medical details, and I have not come across many experts in bio-ethics who have weighed in on the topic. Based on what has been covered in the news, however, an important distinction should be made with regard to Jerika’s particular case. There is a big difference between suicide (assisted or not), and simply allowing nature to run its course. The Church has always been opposed to assisted suicide, but she is not opposed to allowing life to come to a natural end. The Catholic Church teaches that while we must do our best to sustain human life through ordinary means (which usually involves providing food and water when necessary), one does not need to go to extraordinary means – i.e. taking advantage of every possible life-sustaining measure provided by advanced medicine and technology. Even the use of a ventilator could be considered “extraordinary means.”
In the case of Jerika Bolen, her disease would inevitably lead to death at some point. Her life has been and could be prolonged through the use of a ventilator and other extraordinary medical procedures. Based on what the news media has reported, it does not appear that she has actively taken steps to end her life by means of a pill or needle, which we would consider an act of suicide. Rather, she has opted to forego extraordinary means, passively and naturally allowing her life to come to an end. Such a choice is perfectly in line with the teaching of the Church.
News reports that I have read tend to be emotionally charged and do not make this important distinction between actively taking one’s life or passively allowing life to come to its natural end. In the area of assisted suicide, as well as with many other controversial moral topics, our society has become persuaded more and more by the popular media to operate on a purely emotional and sentimental level. To our detriment, we no longer base our decisions on our use of reason and what is objectively good or objectively wrong. May we pray for Jerika’s eternal rest, for the consolation of her friends and family, and that our society might be converted to honor the dignity of life from its natural beginning to its natural end.