Catherine Pepinster: Do we really need this spectacle of the dying?

Some have found the sight of the Pope inspiring. I would have preferred him to have a less public end

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A few weeks ago I had the chance to read an early copy of Anthony Howard's forthcoming biography of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who was a much respected and loved leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The final chapter on Cardinal Hume's death was particularly poignant, but what struck me forcefully was that Cardinal Hume had the kind of death most of us would wish to have.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to read an early copy of Anthony Howard's forthcoming biography of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who was a much respected and loved leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The final chapter on Cardinal Hume's death was particularly poignant, but what struck me forcefully was that Cardinal Hume had the kind of death most of us would wish to have.

After being told that he was seriously ill with cancer, and that he had months to live, he had time to prepare for his death, and make his peace with the world and with God. Cardinal Hume, announcing that he was dying, stressed: "Above all, no fuss." He then retreated from public life, finally dying surrounded by family and his closest associates.

If only it had been the case for the American Terri Schiavo, and for Pope John Paul II in these, his final days. The agony of these two people has been a spectacle, a media circus at times bordering on the unseemly, with every gasp, every agonised movement, every moment of struggle monitored by the cameras. Yet the final days of these people's lives tell us much of the nature of dying today. On the one hand there is the Christian belief that suffering must be borne with faith and patience, and on the other, a humanist view that people should be taken out of their misery.

The tension between these two approaches was clearly apparent in the case of Mrs Schiavo. Her husband, with his belief that her life should be actively brought to an end, finally won the day. Her Catholic parents believed that she should not have food and water withdrawn, but they were forced by the courts to stand aside and watch her die an excruciating death.

But there was a third element in the life and death of Mrs Schiavo, and indeed in the story of the Pope's final days. That is the role that medical technology plays today, not so much in saving lives but prolonging them. Doctors using advanced medication and feeding techniques can keep people alive who would never have survived even 10 or 20 years ago. Once this happens, the boundaries between life and death become ever more blurred.

Today, with people's belief in the right to determine their own life paramount, there is a growing belief that we should determine the time of our deaths too. The Catholic moral tradition, with its roots in the thinking of Aristotle, emphasises the need to do what we can to protect and care for innocent life - for Terri Schiavo, and John Paul II, but not at all costs.

Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state but to a Catholic she remained essentially a person, despite this. Others see it differently, of course. The doctors who treated the Hillsborough victim Tony Bland and secured the courts' agreement to withdraw food and hydration said that he was no longer a person.

His personhood had gone following the football ground disaster, as if the body in a persistent vegetative state becomes an empty shell. Bland gave no physical sign that he was a thinking individual; he could not cogitate. He did not blink, or move anything in response to questions and demands, said the doctors. Mr Schiavo thought the same of his wife.

Yet even if we see that the thinking creature no longer seems to exist, does that human being lose his or her intrinsic worth? To the parents of Terri Schiavo, she remained a person, for they still felt that they had a relationship to her. So, too, have many people felt a lasting connection to the Pope in his desperate infirmity. Indeed, some would say he became even more powerful in his extraordinary struggle for life.

This is not to say that we should persist come what may in keeping people alive. Sometimes we need to accept that the tide of life ebbs away. Terri Schiavo was a woman with a quality of life that none of us would willingly embraced, but it was a life, nevertheless. She did not, until the food and water eventually ran out, seem to be dying.

For Pope John Paul, though, it seems that time has been running out for these past few weeks. Some have found the sight of him struggling to breathe - to speak one final time - inspiring. I, for one, would have preferred him to have a less public end. Just as respect for human dignity does not require life to be continued at any cost, so solidarity with the dying does not need them to be put on public view. Prayer alone is enough.

The writer is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

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