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Mother Teresa's Little Sisters and Euthanasia
In this essay we see Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Little Sisters of the Poor responding to the Europena Parliament's pro-euthanasia measure. In their response is found an insight into death which the Western world lacks. The Little Sisters are knowledgeable from personal experience with the many whom they have seen die. They are also firmly rooted in a strong religious tradition. Both of these considerations make their advice the very best one can hear in the euthanasia debate.
"How can the Little Sisters of the Poor, in the service of the elderly, not be concerned about the passing of the principle of euthanasia by a Commission in the European Parliament? We feel that the confusion caused by the text pertaining to the use of extraordinary means to prolong life, palliative care and euthanasia can easily mislead an uninformed public. Yet behind these extremely complicated phrases, the thought is clear: to give doctors the right to satisfy the request for euthanasia, that is to say, to take a person's life. Human dignity does not consist in being able to choose the time of one's death, but in being aware of the fact that one's basic right is the right of respect for life, of respect for human dignity"(Little)
The Little Sisters have 150 years of experience in accompanying the elderly up until the end of their lives, and by this experience they are authorized to make known to the public what they have seen and learned. Since their foundation, 17,080 Little Sisters have lived with the dying, and today they are in 30 countries on six continents, with 74 homes in France and Belgium, First World nations. So the dear sisters have expertise with the dying of both the Third World and our world.
Making the elderly happy, that is what counts!" Mother Teresa used to say, encouraging the Little Sisters to attain this goal by employing means adapted to each person, to his/her possibilities, tastes, past life, health, etc. Making the elderly happy means believing in the value of their life, and the Little Sisters are witnesses of the extraordinary resources of the elderly. Having a center of interest, doing something they like to do, feeling useful, being able to take initiatives, to communicate, to form friendships, maintaining a facilitated relationship with the family, having contacts with youth: these are factors which provide joy and happiness.
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The sisters say that old age is a stage of life. It is not an illness, but it can cause physical and mental disabilities, which vary widely. These disabilities are accepted all the more readily when those who surround the elderly do not dramatize them or stop there, but take care of the elderly with the same esteem and affection, trying to compensate for these disabilities, making them easier to bear, even combating them and halting their progression. The sisters can affirm that advanced old age, in the final stage, is extremely variable. They see centenarians who are full of life, and more frequently 90-year-olds who are still healthy and active. The serenity of old age increases by having the security of being treated and taken care of until death.
In a family atmosphere where each one is accepted and, in many countries, where there is a Christian atmosphere, death is not overshadowed. It is an event that should be lived by each one. It remains trying, anguishing at times and for many, but even though Mother Teresa did not mention the term "palliative care" in her advice to the Little Sisters, she nonetheless had its spirit and intuition: using all the means within reach and the collaboration of doctors to care for the sick, to keep them " comfortable" by thoughtful attentions which are so important to them, to visit them, to increase contacts with their families always welcome, to stay with them at all times, both day and night. This attentive presence is a form of accompanying the sick. It promotes a trusting atmosphere which pacifies, facilitates the response to questions, and enables the priest or minister to be brought in if this is in keeping with the person's desire.
Real peace reigns so often in the room of the dying person where the family comes even more willingly since the Little Sister is there if need be. The other residents go there to pay a little visit, to say "good-bye" (not without emotion). But we can say that in these circumstances, "Death takes on its true dignity. It is the confident placing of one's life into the hands of the one from whom it was received. It is an achievement."
There are differences, of course, and circumstances and people vary. But the goal pursued is to help life to be lived until death, in serenity and "human dignity." Indeed, the Little Sisters have insights into death and into religion, which cause them to reject the practice of euthanasia.
Little Sisters of the Poor