Thomas Young and the myth of autonomy

Thomas Young, like so many other people, signed up for military service after September 11th. He understandably thought he would … Continued

Thomas Young, like so many other people, signed up for military service after September 11th. He understandably thought he would be sent to Afghanistan, but instead he was inexplicably sent to Iraq. Less than a week after being deployed he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and became paralyzed from the chest down.

Since that tragic day, the 33-year-old has endured many different kinds of setbacks and difficulties. Five years ago he suffered a pulmonary embolism which hurt his ability to speak and to use his arms. Claudia Cuellar, his new bride as of last April, said that this changed things dramatically. Before the embolism “he was independent and functioning independently” but now her husband requires much more help.

Indeed, Young told ABC News that after this he “felt helpless every day and a burden to the people who take care of me and that’s why I want to go.” Young has therefore made the decision to stop eating and drinking and taking medicine. He has made the decision to die.

Normally we think of euthanasia as something like taking an overdose of pain medication, not removing medical treatment. Indeed, patients are taken off of life-sustaining ventilators and feeding tubes without incident even when euthanasia is illegal.

But secular philosophers like Princeton’s Peter Singer have argued for some time that this is inconsistent reasoning. Surely it doesn’t matter whether life is ended actively (with an overdose of pain medication) or passively (by refusing to ventilate). In fact, Singer would say that it is actually more humane to simply allow Young to take a deadly dose of pain medication rather than force him to essentially starve or dehydrate himself to death.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church agrees with Singer’s logic, and defines euthanasia as “either an act or omission” which aims at death. For the church, like Singer, there is no logical or moral distinction between aiming at death actively or aiming at is passively. Though the church does allow medical patients to accept death when it comes, it still claims that it is always going to be wrong to seek death—whether actively or passively. Indeed, Holy Week is the time of year where Christians everywhere are commemorating Jesus making this very distinction in his own life. He in no way aimed at his own death (in fact, Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t die), but he also accepted death as the result of the father’s plan.

Young is not terminally ill. His decision is not merely to accept the reality of death, but instead to aim at his own death by omission. But so what? Shouldn’t it be his choice what he wants to do with his body and life? Who is the church or anyone else to say what he should do?

But like so many of the choices we human beings have, Young’s “free” choice to kill himself actually traps him. His choice does not lead to freedom, but is instead coerced by his social structures—structures that are pushing him toward death.

Americans like Young live in a culture that worships the idols of autonomy, capital production, and self-sufficiency. Our social structures are set up to reward these values and traits—and punish those without them. Young is not autonomous or self-sufficient and he is a clear drain on our nation’s financial resources. His wife insisted that everything changed when he went from “functioning independently” to his current state of dependence. Indeed, his feelings of “helplessness” and being a “burden” are Young’s stated reasons for wanting to die.

It is hardly surprising that an American in Young’s position has been coerced this way. His culture taught him that being dependent or a burden is to be avoided at all costs. But Christians know that this American myth is a false and dangerous. Especially in today’s globalized world—one in which banks on the tiny island of Cyprus can shake markets everywhere—self-sufficiency and autonomy are impossible. All of us are dependent. All of us should expect to be burdens on others, but also do what we can to relieve others of burdens.

Young has done an amazing job drawing public attention to the horrifically bad decision to go to war in Iraq, to PTSD and other problems associated with Iraq war veterans, and to the solemn duty that our nation’s leaders have to make war the absolute last resort. He’s done his part trying to bear the burdens of others. Now it is our culture’s responsibility to honor Young by changing our social structures which push someone with his courage and message to the conclusion that it is better to die than to be a dependent.

Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. He is author of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization with Cambridge University Press and For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action forthcoming from Franciscan Media.

  • SODDI

    What the catholic church has to say about this or any other matter is only of account to catholics.

    The catholic church worships pain and commands that sufferers from end-of-life physical agony “offer their suffering up to god.” As if this imaginary creature that they worship feeds on the agonies of the dying.

    Unfortunately they’ve even been able to get this evil and medieval concept written into law in many U.S. states.

    Mr. Young is not the property of the sadistic and primitive catholic church. This is his own decision. A couple bucks worth of morphine would ease his pain and his passing.

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