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Editorial: In a society that gawks at death, we are called to affirm the value of life

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During the first few days of June, two events took place that offered examples of how far we as a society have strayed from valuing human life. One story was buried in the back pages of newspapers — if it found a home in print at all. The other, like so many stories today, flashed hot for a moment but was quickly extinguished, and soon the crowd dispersed. People only want to see the fire for its chaos; they don’t care to stick around to see the damage done and the lives ruined.

The first, which seemed to fly under the radar of many news outlets, took place in the Maine State Legislature, where a bill that would make physician-assisted suicide legal passed by the slimmest of margins (73-72) in the House on June 3. The next day, it was passed by the Senate, placing it on the desk of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who had 10 days to sign the bill into law. (She had not signed the bill by the time this issue was sent to the press.) Mills was quoted in multiple media outlets that she was “not really sure” about the future of the bill, and that she was “listening to both sides of the issue to find out the pluses and minuses.” If she signs the bill, Maine would become the eighth state to make assisted suicide legal, joining California, Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont.

The second story garnered international attention, though it seems that was more because of a widespread media mixup than for the heartbreaking loss of a young girl’s life. It was first reported by multiple media outlets in the United States that 17-year-old Noa Pothoven was euthanized in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide for children as young as 12 has been legal for years.

However, media had the story wrong. Pothoven, who reportedly had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia and depression for years after she was sexually abused and raped earlier in her childhood, had requested legal euthansia but was denied. Instead, she made public on social media that in order to end her suffering, she was refusing to eat or drink. On June 3, she died after starving herself.

Within the span of a 24-hour news cycle, the story had gone from heartfelt compassion over the premature loss of Pothoven’s life to questions regarding how media outlets could have gotten the story so wrong, to being forgotten altogether as news consumers moved on to gawk at the latest fire.

Twenty years ago this month, the nation was engrossed in the trial of Jack Kevorkian, who was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder for administering a lethal cocktail of drugs to a patient diagnosed with Lou Gerhig’s disease. Kevorkian admitted to ending the lives of 130 men and women in a similar manner, earning him the media-given nickname “Dr. Death.”

In June 1999, the coverage of Kevorkian was widespread; but, even more telling, so was the outrage over the disregard for the dignity and value of human life. Now, such disregard is not only commonplace but championed — and it is a trend that quietly continues to grow — not only in the United States but around the world. According to the most recent polling by Gallup, 72 percent of Americans say that doctors should be allowed to end the life of someone with a terminal illness, and, including Maine, 20 states are considering physician-assisted suicide bills this year or current legislative session, according to the pro-euthanasia group Death with Dignity.

On June 5, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the suicide of 17-year-old Pothoven, Pope Francis tweeted: “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all. We are called never to abandon those who are suffering, never giving up, but caring and loving to restore hope.”

Our Sunday Visitor stands with the pope and the Church in the face of such a tragic lack of compassion for those who are suffering, and if we truly are to restore hope, we must reaffirm that all life, regardless of age or illness, has value. But doing so will take work and a tender heart. So when the culture stops to gawk at the next fire, let us choose instead to help those who are left sorting through the ashes.

OSV Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young

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