The 'right-to-die' case of Jerika Bolen

Matt C. Abbott
September 10, 2016
© Matt C. Abbott
Reproduced with Permission

Disability rights organizations have asked child protection officials to prevent a Wisconsin teenager from going without her ventilator and ending her life.

Jerika Bolen, 14, suffers from spinal muscular atrophy type two. The incurable disease destroys nerve cells that control voluntary muscle activity. Jerika's movement is mostly limited to her head and hands, and she says she's in constant pain. Her mother, Jen Bolen, agrees with her daughter's wishes to enter hospice care.

Jerika's case has received considerable attention in the mainstream media and on social media, so I asked author-theologian Father John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy , to comment on this sad situation.

Father Trigilio's response is as follows (slightly edited):

My heart goes out to Jerika and her mother. My younger brother Michael suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy until his death at the age of 26. He was confined to a wheelchair since the age of 10. I saw him suffer and deteriorate slowly. It was even more difficult for my mom and dad to watch helplessly as he lived a very short life. Nevertheless, like Pope Saint John Paul the Great, my brother offered up and united his suffering with the Divine Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.

I am sad that Jerika feels the need to end her life. It is normal and reasonable that she wants to end the pain and suffering. No rational person wants pain for its own sake. But like the mother in labor who endures the pain for the sake of her child, God invites us to sanctify our suffering to help others. Animals are euthanized when they have untreatable pain. That is because their pain can never be salvific. They lack an immortal soul with a rational intellect and a free will that can choose to unite personal suffering with the Cross of Christ.

The same pope who wrote Salvifici Doloris suffered a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. He endured the embarrassment of being seen on the balcony of his apartment slouched over, drooling and slurring his speech. He wanted to be seen in public so that others who suffered would hang in there and persevere. He even issued a moral statement on the obligation to give hydration (water), nutrition (food) and normal care (clean shelter, clothes and human company) to anyone and everyone who is dying. The terminally ill deserved ordinary means until they became ineffective and redundant. Starving someone to death or any means of euthanasia are immoral, be it active or passive euthanasia.

Giving Jerika as much analgesics as tolerable to relieve the pain is morally permissible. It is just that the dosage and the medication not be the primary cause of death. The person must die a natural death of natural means. It is disconcerting that the secular press and the modern world glamorize and romanticize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Making the dying comfortable and allowing them to die naturally but with dignity, respect and loving compassion is what all human beings should support. Hastening death to end pain is still immoral. Allowing a dying person to die a natural death is a different issue.

Catholic moral theology has always taught that extraordinary means are never obligatory. Only ordinary means of medical treatment must be given to anyone and everyone who is not well. Extraordinary means, while optional, can be refused but not discontinued if they directly will cause death. If they merely allow the dying process to come to conclusion, then they can be employed.

I watched my brother suffer muscular dystrophy, my dad suffer leukemia and my mother suffer heart disease. All three experienced pain and misery, but all three were kissed and embraced by the Crucified Lord. Collin Raye, a convert to Catholicism, sings a song that goes:

I prayed for strength and I got pain to make me strong.
I prayed for courage and I got fear to overcome
When I prayed for faith my empty heart brought me to my knees
I don't always get what I want, I get what I need.

Jerika deserves all the ordinary means of treatment available and to get as much pain medication as she can tolerate without it causing her death. Dying with dignity is not controlling the time and manner of death; it is surrendering to divine providence that God has something better waiting on the other side - but on His timetable, not ours.

Murder or suicide is not the answer, and neither is neglect or lack of compassion. Like Our Lady at the foot of the Cross on Calvary on Good Friday, often the only thing a loved one can do for the dying is just be there with them as they leave this earth. Mary did not hasten her Son's death, nor did she desire it. But she endured it with Him.

It is not easy for caregivers to spend hours, days, weeks, months or even years helplessly watching a beloved die slowly and painfully. But the fact that they are there is what matters. Too many family and friends avoid the terminally ill and the dying and show up only at the funeral. Saying nothing but being there is what counts.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta would pull poor people from the gutter and clean them up. They would often die the same or very next day. Asked if she was a failure for not saving more lives, she remarked that her job was to save souls, not lives. She was not called to be successful, but to be faithful.