The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

This past week I was at a conference, and one of the speakers asked us to do something that really stuck with me.  He asked us to imagine the Apostle John, in his old age as he was exiled on the island of Patmos.   All of the other disciples had been martyred by this point; only John remained.  The speaker asked us to imagine John thinking back to that moment when Jesus first called him, and he left all behind to follow him.

In my mind’s eye I could see an elderly, white haired man hunched over a rock, thinking, reflecting and writing, and doing that with tears running down his face.  I could see a man writing about the moment that his life changed trajectory.  John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which doesn’t tell us that Jesus was playing favorites, but that John truly understood, maybe more than the other Apostles, how much Jesus loved him.   And it occurred to me how painful it must have been to be separated from Jesus, from the God made man who he had lived with and loved.  John, the Beloved Apostle, must have felt an immense amount of grief.  True, Jesus had given him a job to do and had asked him to care for his mother, Mary, and I’m sure that that brought him joy.  He also founded many Churches and served the Lord well, but at his heart, he probably just really wanted to go be with Jesus.

I guess that I had always thought of John as blessed because he wasn’t martyred the way the other Apostles were.  Being crucified upside down like Peter was, or being beheaded like Paul was, would be very difficult ways to die.  But he did have a martyrdom of sorts because he was separated for many, many years from the one who loved him more than life itself.  That must have been a hard cross to carry.

Maybe he would be a good Paton Saint for those who are grieving.  Since he deeply felt the love of Jesus, I’m guessing he deeply grieved being separated from him for so long.

St. John the Apostle, pray for us.

 

 

Re-posting for NFP Awareness Week — “It’s really none of your business.”

NFP awareness week was last week.  Although I’m a little late, here is a post from last year on NFP.

……..

When Peter and I were married, both of us were subjected to a number of questions from people.  These questions ranged from the merely curious, to the downright intrusive.  I tried to be understanding when people asked me questions that seemed out of bounds to me.  I understood that the decision that I had made to marry Peter might seem a bit odd to someone from the outside.  When we were married, Peter had been diagnosed with a re-occurrence of a rare type of liver cancer and had only been given a few years to live.  For the most part, I was happy to answer questions about why we would choose to make a decision to get married given that diagnosis — I was happy to talk about choosing to live without fear.  Looking back now, I think that the one question that I really wish that I had answered with a sharp, “It’s really none of your business,” was the question about whether or not we planned to have children.

The truth was that we would have loved to have children.  The problem, though, was that Peter was taking a cocktail of experimental drugs in an attempt to kill the cancerous cells in his body.  When we met with the doctor to sign the papers to allow Peter to enter into the study which would provide him with the treatment, the doctors informed us that they usually don’t accept people into the study unless they are practicing two forms of artificial birth control.  According to the doctors, if I were to get pregnant while Peter was taking the drugs, the baby would most likely be deformed.  As Catholics, using artificial contraception wasn’t something that we could agree to do.  When we  broached the idea of practicing Natural Family Planning in order to avoid pregnancy, the Doctors basically laughed in our faces and told us that it wouldn’t work.   In the end, we didn’t back down, and the doctors just marked on their forms that we were practicing two forms of artificial contraception, even though they knew that we weren’t.

After we got home, we did some research on our own, and discovered that the doctor’s fears weren’t necessarily grounded in reality.  Yes, there was most likely some danger if I were to get pregnant, but, honestly, the effects of this particular chemo would most likely cause sterility anyway, so there probably wasn’t as much to worry about as the doctors said.  However, Peter and I discussed the matter, and Peter decided that he wanted to practice NFP to prevent conception in order to be a witness to those doctors on the effectiveness of NFP.  He wanted to help pave the way for other couples coming after us, who might not have doctors who were so willing to mark a box on a form and look the other way.  So, we did practice NFP while he was on the chemo drugs.

Our decision was, in our  minds, firmly in conformity with the Catholic Church’s teachings on NFP.  Namely, that:

“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae, 10)

Additionally, the Church teaches that:

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.”  (Humanae Vitae, 16)

It seemed to us, after discernment, that we did indeed have “serious,” or, “well-grounded,” reasons to delay having children.  The thing about the Catholic Church’s teaching on using NFP to delay having children is that although she gives us guidance, she does not actually spell out specifically what any of these “physical, economic, social, and social conditions” are.  In other words, there is no handy list that could be referred to in order to determine whether or not a couple is justified in practicing NFP. This is because what would qualify as a just reason to practice NFP will be deeply personal and unique to each couple.  What might constitute a well-grounded reason for one person, doesn’t necessarily translate into a well-grounded reason for someone else (for more on this, see Simcha Fisher’s excellent book, “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning”).  I think that this is where one commentator, Dr. Taylor Marshall, makes a mistake in his discussion on NFP. (http://taylormarshall.com/2014/08/nfp-and-serious-reasons-what-are-these-reasons.html).  Towards the end of his blog entry he begins to articulate what he thinks constitutes “serious reasons,” and lists some reasons as being objectively serious reasons to delay having a child (for example, couples who are on government assistance, couples struggling with debt).   The problem with this type of thinking is twofold.  First, and foremost, that’s not what the Catholic Church teaches.  The Church doesn’t state cases in which a couple definitely should, or should not, delay having children.  Second, when we go beyond what the Church teaches and come up with our own reasons that are, or are not, serious reasons to delay having a child, and then apply those reasons to everyone in a particular situation, we step into judgment of other people.  When we do so, we are wading into a very personal area about which we know nothing.

I don’t know whether or not others would have considered mine and Peter’s reasons for practicing NFP to be serious.  That’s not really the point, though.  I believed then, and I believe now, that we did have serious reasons to practice NFP.  Our reasons for delaying having a baby were not something that I necessarily felt comfortable discussing with the casual acquaintance, though.  In fact, that is probably the case with most people who have reason to practice NFP in order to avoid conception — they most likely have a deeply personal reason that they don’t necessarily want to discuss.  What that deeply personal reason is, is no one’s business but the couple themselves.

What doesn’t kill you …….

I’ve spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this post.  I first started writing it when the news of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life was in the news.  I worked on it off and on over the course of the next few months, but never felt that I could hit “publish.”  In the last few weeks I’ve been following the story of Paul Coakley (a man who I never met but knows people who I know) who was very courageously fighting cancer that had spread throughout his body.  He lost his battle with cancer a week ago, and in thinking and praying for him, I remembered this post.  I also just heard about California’s new initiative to legalize assisted suicide.  I think that maybe now is the time to hit publish on my thoughts.  It’s probably not the most eloquent post that I’ve written (I’ve found that the longer I work on writing something, the worse it gets!), but it does say a little of what’s on my heart.

……….

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  But what if “it” (whatever “it” happens to be) does kill you, or is going to kill you, or is going to kill someone who you love.  Does it still make you stronger?

Walking with my husband as he prepared to die was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life (the only thing that might have been harder was grieving for him after he died).  When I chose to marry Peter, I was making a radical choice not to let fear run my life, but walking with him as he died put that decision to the test.  Watching someone die and helping them as they go through the dying process is messy and scary.  It inevitably involves a loss of control and a great number of tears shed, sleepless nights, and desperate times on your knees before God.  And, yes, it’s true that there will most likely be physical pain involved, and certainly emotional pain as well, as you either prepare for your own imminent death, or walk with someone else who is.  It’s also true, though, that the intimacy you experience as you help your spouse die will be an intimacy that you’ve never experienced before.  Yes, there will be fear, but there can be joy as you care for the needs of your spouse, as you realize that you are loving them more by walking with them as they die, than you ever loved them before.

You see, people are not like animals.  Animals have no understanding of the value of suffering.  In other words, what doesn’t kill them, doesn’t make them stronger.  They don’t know that suffering can be redemptive, and that it can be a path to greater intimacy not only with God but with those around you.  That is why we “put down” animals when their quality of life has greatly diminished.  We don’t “put down” humans, though, or, at least, we shouldn’t.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act to ease someone’s pain as they make their way towards death.  However, easing this pain doesn’t mean, or require, ending a life early.

If my husband had chosen to take his own life before he died naturally, I would have missed learning about how strong I was.  I would have missed learning about my own capacity for suffering, and, also, my own capacity for love, and my ability to live without fear.  In the end, I learned more about myself from walking with my husband as he died, and also from grieving for him, than I learned in all of the previous years of my life. That’s not something that I would trade for anything.  Because of Peter’s life and death, I know, I truly know, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; and that even if it does kill you, it can still make you stronger.

This isn’t to say that my husband’s death was “easy,” or that grieving for him wasn’t the most heartrending thing that I have ever done.  This is to say though, that it was one of the most meaningful and fruitful things that I have ever done. It has made me not only a better wife and mother, but a more whole and complete human being.  For that, I have Peter to thank.

In Praise of Hospice

This past weekend, we needed to take my toddler son to the ER.  Thankfully, he was quickly diagnosed and treated, and was feeling better after several hours.  This is the first time that my husband and I had to take one of our children to the ER in the three years that we’ve been parents.  Considering the activity level of our children who were early walkers and climbers, that’s probably nothing short of miraculous!

Being in the ER reminded me of another time, though, a time in which I was in the ER once a week on average.   When we were first married, Peter was suffering from chronic and severe pain.  It was unclear what exactly was causing the pain; no one could tie the pain to the tumor on this liver with any certainty, but that was roughly where the pain was originating.  As a result of the pain, he was on heavy pain killers, and if he ever got behind on taking the pain killers, the pain would overwhelm him.  We often ended up going to the ER so that they could bring his pain down to a manageable level.   Going to the ER was a trial, not only because of the wait, but because the doctors often treated him as being drug seeking, rather than being truly in pain.  Once they heard his medical history and that he had cancer, they usually realized that he was telling the truth, but it was always a guess how long it would take to get to the point where he would receive medicine to help him.   One of the wonderful side effects of the experimental cancer medication that he was on was that it took away the pain almost completely.  No one could figure out exactly why the medicine worked that way, the working theory was that it was helping in some way with inflammation.  Once Peter’s liver levels went up and he was no longer allowed to take the cancer meds, we both dreaded returning to the weekly trips to the ER to control the pain.  In fact, one of the first things that happened after he was taken off the medication was that he was admitted to the hospital in an attempt to control his pain.

While we were there, however, Peter made the decision to stop treatment (for more information on this decision see “‘Just Take me Out and Shoot Me’ is Not An End of Life Plan”), which meant that he was eligible for hospice care.  Although the qualifications for hospice care vary, usually you need to be no longer pursuing active treatment and only be looking for palliative care, at least in the case of cancer.  It was very hard to make the decision to enter hospice because it seemed like we were giving up and refusing to fight the cancer.  However, Peter wanted to make the most of whatever time we had left, and hospice care seemed to offer the best chance.  Once he was in hospice care, he was able to receive a personal, portable IV pump for his pain meds., and the hospice nurse came to our house 2-3 times a week to check on him.  We had wonderful nurses, and they took amazing care of him.  Because his pain was controlled, we were able to go to mass, go away for a weekend, see family, and just spend quality time together, and we never had to worry about those dreaded trips to the ER.  In fact, Peter was surprisingly active up until just a few days before his death.  I know that being in hospice is what made that possible for him.

I’m sure that being a hospice worker is one of the most emotionally taxing jobs that there are for a medical professional.  For anyone who has chosen to work in this field, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

“You’re going to lose your life for something…..”

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 16:24-25

The deacon at mass last Sunday preached on this passage in his homily.  At one point he noted that we’re all going to lose our lives to something, and there are a great number of options out there for the taking — wealth, fear, anger, bitterness, popularity, etc.  In other words, it’s not as if anyone is going to escape losing his or her life, but we do have a choice what we will lose our lives to.  Br. Paul challenged us to lose our lives to Jesus.

This homily reminded me of a decision that I made almost seven years ago.  At the time, I had gone out on a few dates with my first husband, Peter, but we hadn’t been dating very long.  I realized that I had a choice before me — I wasn’t yet in love with Peter, although I was attracted to him, so I could walk away with very little pain if I wanted to.  I knew that if I continued dating him, however, I was opening up myself to potentially a great deal of pain because I could very well fall in love with a man who had only been given a few years to live.  I remember thinking that the “sensible” thing to do would be to walk away and spare myself a great deal of pain and sorrow.  However, I also knew that if I walked away it would be out of fear, and anytime I had made a decision in my life out of fear, it had been a bad one.  I remember thinking that not dating Peter for any reason other than a realization that we were not meant to be together, would mean that I was choosing fear over trust.  The fact is that none of us is going to escape sorrow in this life.  If I live my life trying to avoid pain, in the end not only would I fail, but I would also never really live.  Most of the most wonderful experiences in life only come along with the very real probability that there will be pain involved as well.

In the end, I decided to continue dating Peter, and I decided to trust that no matter how long or how short our relationship was, that God would be there, that it was safe to lose my life to him.  There were certainly moments and days, even weeks and months, when that trust was tried, when I doubted that God was there, and I wanted to lose my life to bitterness and anger.  But in the end I discovered that in choosing not to lose my life to fear, in choosing to lose my life to Jesus, I found out who I really was.  The experience of loving Peter, and losing Peter, molded me and gave me strength in a way that I never could have imagined.

You’re going to lose your life to something, choose to lose it to Jesus.

 

“It’s really none of your business.”

When Peter and I were married, both of us were subjected to a number of questions from people.  These questions ranged from the merely curious, to the downright intrusive.  I tried to be understanding when people asked me questions that seemed out of bounds to me.  I understood that the decision that I had made to marry Peter might seem a bit odd to someone from the outside.  When we were married, Peter had been diagnosed with a re-occurrence of a rare type of liver cancer and had only been given a few years to live.  For the most part, I was happy to answer questions about why we would choose to make a decision to get married given that diagnosis — I was happy to talk about choosing to live without fear.  Looking back now, I think that the one question that I really wish that I had answered with a sharp, “It’s really none of your business,” was the question about whether or not we planned to have children.

The truth was that we would have loved to have children.  The problem, though, was that Peter was taking a cocktail of experimental drugs in an attempt to kill the cancerous cells in his body.  When we met with the doctor to sign the papers to allow Peter to enter into the study which would provide him with the treatment, the doctors informed us that they usually don’t accept people into the study unless they are practicing two forms of artificial birth control.  According to the doctors, if I were to get pregnant while Peter was taking the drugs, the baby would most likely be deformed.  As Catholics, using artificial contraception wasn’t something that we could agree to do.  When we  broached the idea of practicing Natural Family Planning in order to avoid pregnancy, the Doctors basically laughed in our faces and told us that it wouldn’t work.   In the end, we didn’t back down, and the doctors just marked on their forms that we were practicing two forms of artificial contraception, even though they knew that we weren’t.

After we got home, we did some research on our own, and discovered that the doctor’s fears weren’t necessarily grounded in reality.  Yes, there was most likely some danger if I were to get pregnant, but, honestly, the effects of this particular chemo would most likely cause sterility anyway, so there probably wasn’t as much to worry about as the doctors said.  However, Peter and I discussed the matter, and Peter decided that he wanted to practice NFP to prevent conception in order to be a witness to those doctors on the effectiveness of NFP.  He wanted to help pave the way for other couples coming after us, who might not have doctors who were so willing to mark a box on a form and look the other way.  So, we did practice NFP while he was on the chemo drugs.

Our decision was, in our  minds, firmly in conformity with the Catholic Church’s teachings on NFP.  Namely, that:

“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae, 10)

Additionally, the Church teaches that:

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.”  (Humanae Vitae, 16)

It seemed to us, after discernment, that we did indeed have “serious,” or, “well-grounded,” reasons to delay having children.  The thing about the Catholic Church’s teaching on using NFP to delay having children is that although she gives us guidance, she does not actually spell out specifically what any of these “physical, economic, social, and social conditions” are.  In other words, there is no handy list that could be referred to in order to determine whether or not a couple is justified in practicing NFP. This is because what would qualify as a just reason to practice NFP will be deeply personal and unique to each couple.  What might constitute a well-grounded reason for one person, doesn’t necessarily translate into a well-grounded reason for someone else (for more on this, see Simcha Fisher’s excellent book, “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning”).  I think that this is where one commentator, Dr. Taylor Marshall, makes a mistake in his discussion on NFP. (http://taylormarshall.com/2014/08/nfp-and-serious-reasons-what-are-these-reasons.html).  Towards the end of his blog entry he begins to articulate what he thinks constitutes “serious reasons,” and lists some reasons as being objectively serious reasons to delay having a child (for example, couples who are on government assistance, couples struggling with debt).   The problem with this type of thinking is twofold.  First, and foremost, that’s not what the Catholic Church teaches.  The Church doesn’t state cases in which a couple definitely should, or should not, delay having children.  Second, when we go beyond what the Church teaches and come up with our own reasons that are, or are not, serious reasons to delay having a child, and then apply those reasons to everyone in a particular situation, we step into judgment of other people.  When we do so, we are wading into a very personal area about which we know nothing.

I don’t know whether or not others would have considered mine and Peter’s reasons for practicing NFP to be serious.  That’s not really the point, though.  I believed then, and I believe now, that we did have serious reasons to practice NFP.  Our reasons for delaying having a baby were not something that I necessarily felt comfortable discussing with the casual acquaintance, though.  In fact, that is probably the case with most people who have reason to practice NFP in order to avoid conception — they most likely have a deeply personal reason that they don’t necessarily want to discuss.  What that deeply personal reason is, is no one’s business but the couple themselves.

Science and Hobby Lobby

One of the criticisms of the recent decision by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case is that it wasn’t based on science.  In other words, Hobby Lobby’s objections to several of the birth control options that the Affordable Care Act requires them to cover are scientifically incorrect.  That criticism would have some weight, I suppose, if Hobby Lobby was basing its objections to the birth control on its beliefs in science, and was claiming that the HHS was using bad science in reaching its decisions on which birth control methods to cover.  Since Hobby Lobby, and the other plaintiffs, were basing their arguments on religious freedom and not on science, that argument doesn’t really hold any water.

The plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case were opposed to providing four types of birth control that they considered to be abortifacients because of the way that these particular types of birth control work is to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg.  As a side note, all forms of hormonal contraception, not just the ones Hobby Lobby objects to, can work to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. Some forms also work to prevent ovulation as well, but if that fails and an egg is released and is fertilized, the hormonal contraception works to create an environment that is hostile to the fertilized egg.  Those who criticize the Hobby Lobby case on the basis of science argue that  human life doesn’t begin until implantation.  Therefore, if implantation is prevented, there is no pregnancy and these forms of birth control can’t be considered to be abortifacients.  The owners of Hobby Lobby (and many, many, other people, including scientists!), argue that human life begins when the egg is fertilized because that is when a unique DNA that has never before existed is created, and when the fertilized egg begins to divide and grow.  Therefore, preventing the egg from implanting would constitute an abortion.

The plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby argued that forcing it to provide these types of birth control violated their religious freedom, since they are opposed to abortion.  When considering whether or not a plaintiff’s claim should succeed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the court has to look at whether or not the plaintiffs have a “sincere religious belief.”  In answering this question, the court doesn’t look at whether or not the belief is scientifically accurate, rather, the court looks at whether the belief is religious in nature, or whether it is based “purely on secular philosophical concerns.”  U.S. v. Zimmerman,  514 F.3d 851, 854 (9th Cir. 2007).  In fact, even if a belief isn’t central to a particular religion and is  “not acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others,” it’s still protected by RFRA as long as it’s religious in nature.  Zimmerman, 514 F.3d at 853.

The Hobby Lobby plaintiffs clearly based their objections on their religious belief that all life should be protected from the moment of conception.  Whether or not that is the generally accepted scientific view isn’t really the issue.  I think that whether or not one agrees on the other questions at stake in this case (e.g. whether or not Hobby Lobby can be considered a person, whether or not the HHS mandate is narrowly tailored means), everyone should be able to agree on that.

 

“I decided he didn’t change his mind….”

A few months ago I was listening to an interview with Dr. Barron H. Lerner.  Dr. Lerner has written a book called The Good Doctor:  A Father, A Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics.  According to a summary, this book ” traces the disparate approaches to end-of-life care practiced by a father and son, and explores ongoing debates about patient suffering versus informed consent, analyzing how their respective views reflect polarized opinions about the powers of doctors and the influence of evolving medical technology.”  Dr. Lerner’s father was also a doctor and was involved in the end of life care of several of Dr. Lerner’s relatives.  Because of his experiences attending people at the end of their lives, the elder Dr. Lerner had very well developed opinions about the care that he wanted to receive at the end of this life, and he shared these views with his son.  However, he apparently never put them in writing.

In the interview the younger Dr. Lerner explained briefly some of the views that his father had.  For example, his father felt that if one were elderly and infirm, it would probably be best to sign a do not resuscitate order.  Additionally, he believed that if one had a disease that was nearing its end stages such as Parkinson’s, ALS or Alzheimer’s  and one contracted pneumonia, it would be best to not administer antibiotics.   These decisions aren’t necessary bad ones to make.  Often the process of resuscitating someone who is elderly and near death is extremely painful for the patient, and merely prolongs the process of death in an unnecessary way.  Denying antibiotics is more controversial. While often patients in the end stages of the diseases mentioned do ultimately die of pneumonia because they are too weak to clear their lungs of secretions, it can be hard to determine when administering antibiotics ceases being ordinary care and becomes extraordinary means (see here for a discussion of ordinary vs. extraordinary care).

What struck me about this interview wasn’t so much the views that the elder Dr. Lerner had about how to treat people at the end of life, but how his son went about making end of life decisions for him.  Unfortunately, the elder Dr. Lerner developed Parkinson’s and ended up requiring care in a nursing home.  At some point the Parkinson’s had caused some dementia, but Dr. Lerner indicated that his father was still lucid much of the time and didn’t seem to be in pain.  In fact, Dr. Lerner said that his father seemed to be at peace.   At this point, decisions needed to be made about his father’s care, so Dr. Lerner asked his father if he wanted to be resuscitated if he should stop breathing.  His father thought about, and said that, yes, he would like to be.  Surprised, Dr. Lerner asked his father about receiving antibiotics if he developed pneumonia.  Again, the elder Dr. Lerner indicated that yes, he would want to receive antibiotics and see if the pneumonia could be healed.  Since this was very different than what his father had previously stated, the younger Dr. Lerner struggled with how to decide to care for him and with trying to decide if his father had indeed changed his mind about how he wanted to be cared for.  Dr. Lerner stated that in the end he decided that his father had not changed his mind, and when his father contracted pneumonia the family decided not to administer antibiotics, and the elder Dr. Lerner died.

While is is possible that his father hadn’t changed his mind, it seems to me that it’s also possible that he had.  Often when we see other people suffering, our first reaction is, “I couldn’t do that.”  When we see others who are paralyzed, or have lost a limb, or who struggle through cancer many say, “if that were me, I would just want to die.”  We equate quality of life with what we can and can’t do.  I think, though, that for some people when they actually find themselves in a situation that they previously thought would be unendurable, they find that life is more than what one can, or cannot physically do.  That there is meaning and joy despite pain, and that disability doesn’t mean the end of life.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that everyone refuse to sign do not resuscitate orders, or never refuse treatments.  Indeed, there is a time and place for making those decisions.  See here for more of a discussion of that.  I do think, however, that we may find ourselves surprised not only by what we are able to endure, but also by what we will ultimately find meaningful and worthy.

 

 

Hobby Lobby and RFRA — A Short Guide

Today the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in the cases of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.  Both of these companies filed lawsuits, and asked for preliminary injunctions against the enforcement of the Contraception Mandate in the Affordable Care Act.  The ACA provides exceptions to the Contraception Mandate for Churches and non-profits (among others), but it doesn’t provide an exception for for-profit companies.  The Plaintiffs are basing their arguments on a statute called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA).  Given the importance of this case, I thought that it might be helpful to explain briefly how RFRA works, and some of the arguments that will probably be made before the Supreme Court today.

First, why is this case being brought under RFRA and not the First Amendment, since the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion against government interference?  Before a case called Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), these types of cases were decided under the First Amendment.  In Smith, however, the Supreme Court decided that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment could not prevent the government from enacting a law that burdened religious practices if the law was generally applicable.  Congress stepped in in 1993 and enacted RFRA, which basically overturned Smith, and allowed plaintiffs to once again bring free exercise claims against generally applicable laws.

So, what does RFRA provide?  Well, it states that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” even by the application of a generally applicable law.   42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1, et seq.  However, there is an exception to this rule — the Government may substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion if it has a compelling interest, and if the enforcement of that compelling interest is accomplished in the least restrictive means possible.   This creates essentially four major points that are argued under a RFRA claim:

The plaintiffs (in this case Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties) must show that

(1) they are engaging in the exercise of their religion which is being

(2) substantially burdened by the Government.

Once they show this, the Government must show that

(3) it has a compelling interest in substantially burdening their free exercise, and

(4) that it is doing so in the least restrictive means possible.

There is an additional wrinkle in these cases, though, because Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are corporations.  Therefore, they must also show that they can be considered “persons” which can engage in the exercise of religion under RFRA and can therefore receive the protection of the statute.

So, what are the arguments that are likely to be made in the Supreme Court today?  First, whether or not the Plaintiffs can be considered “persons” is key — if they can’t be, the whole argument fails, and there is no need for the Court to even look at the requirements of RFRA.  Plaintiffs will argue that they should be considered “persons” under RFRA and should be protected by it.  They will argue that being forced to pay for contraceptive coverage that is against their religious principles substantially burdens their religion.  “Substantially burdens” means that it’s more than just an “inconvenience”  to their religious exercise, or a “diminishment” of their religious experience.  The religious exercise in question doesn’t need to be central to the practice of the particular religion in question, but it must be religious in nature.

If the Plaintiffs can show this, then the Government must then show that providing contraception free of cost to women is a compelling interest of the government which overrides Plaintiffs’ free exercise rights, and that it is enforcing this interest in the least restrictive means possible.   Plaintiffs will most likely argue that even if this could somehow be considered a compelling interest, the Government has made all kinds of exceptions for Churches, non-profits, and “grandfathered” health care plans, so it would be no problem for it to make an exception for them as well.  As a result, this isn’t the least restrictive means of implementing any interest the government has.

This is necessarily a very brief summary of what might be argued, but I hope that this helps give a general idea of what to look for as these cases are argued. Let’s all pray for wisdom and clear thinking on the part of the justices and the attorneys — what is decided in these cases will effect many peoples’ lives and the future of religious freedom in the United States.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

DISCLAIMER:  I am not connected with the lawyers arguing this case in any way.   The above are just my thoughts based on what I know about RFRA.

A life not worth living?

A few days ago, I came across this article on the internet about a women who carries a gene for a disease called “Gertsmann-Straussler-Scheinker Disease, or GSS, a rare neurodegenerative condition that causes symptoms that start in mid-life and inevitably lead to death.”  Apparently her father died of the disease in his fifties, as did her grandfather.  When it came time for her to think about having children, she decided to pursue having children through a procedure which combines IVF with eugenics.  I can’t claim to understand how the science works, but basically, she had eggs harvested which were then fertilized using her husband’s sperm.  The resulting embryos were then tested to see which ones carried the gene for GSS.  The ones that carried the gene for GSS were “destroyed,” a process the woman admits was troubling, and then the remaining embryos were either implanted or frozen.  As a result of this process, the woman and her husband now have three children who are free from carrying the GSS gene.

There is a great deal about this article that I find incredibly troubling.  I suppose some might defend her actions on the basis that the embryos that were destroyed were destined to die anyway from GSS, so although they were destroyed, she at least spared them from having to go through the process of dying via GSS.  However, all of us are going to die of something, at some point, so that argument doesn’t really sit well with me.  While the embryos that were destroyed might not have died from GSS, they could have died a slow (and early) death from cancer, Alzheimers, or any other number of diseases.  Leaving aside the morality of the actions that were taken to get to the point where the embryos were destroyed, there are clearly ethical issues with taking these kinds of actions.  How far should this technology be allowed to go?  Should mothers and fathers only be allowed to destroy embryos which could possibly develop an inherently fatal disease?  What if the disease isn’t likely to develop until the embryo is born and reaches the age of 80? 60? 40? 20?  What about using this technology to make sure that a girl or a boy is born, or that a baby isn’t born who will eventually develop a mental illness?  What if an embryo carries a gene for cancer, but that cancer won’t develop until the age of 60?  Where would we draw the line between a life that is worth living and one that is not?  Again, we are all going to eventually “catch” a disease that will kill us.  For some of us that might happen from cancer at a relatively young age, for others of us it might be from congestive heart failure at the age of 90.

I understand where the woman in this article is coming from — my guess is she just wanted to prevent her children and her children’s children from suffering.  She probably didn’t have any motives other than that.  Those motives, while understandable, are misguided, I believe.  We live in a world that is full of suffering.  Those of us who are Christians see the suffering as a result of the entry of sin into the world.  Regardless of religious belief, though, I don’t think that anyone can deny that suffering exists.  I also don’t think that anyone can deny that everyone will experience suffering in his or her life — it’s inevitable.  How that suffering affects us and how we handle it is often what gives us incredible amounts of wisdom, joy, sympathy, and strength. Is suffering easy?  No, it’s not, but it’s an inescapable part of this life.  I can understand the desire to want to control how those around us experience suffering, but the reality is that while this woman might have prevented her living children from contracting GSS, she hasn’t prevented them from dying of something, someday.  I also wonder if she stopped to consider that if her grandfather or father, had access to, and had decided to use, this technology, she would not be alive today because her life, and the life of her father, wouldn’t have been considered worth living.

All of this came to mind again today because today would’ve been the 36th birthday of my first husband.  I found myself reflecting on how my life would’ve been different had Peter’s mother known that he carried a gene for liver cancer and decided that his life was, therefore, not worth living (for the record, I know that she never would have done this!).   I am where I am today because of being married to Peter, losing him, and grieving him. His life was an incredible gift to me and has made me the person that I am today.  Was there suffering involved in getting to this place, yes.  But, I am in a good place, and I wouldn’t be here without the suffering that I had to go through to get here.  The suffering has (I think!) made me a better wife and mother.  I don’t advocate going out and finding as much suffering as one can find and embracing it, but I do advocate trying to embrace the suffering that inevitably comes to us in our daily lives and letting it transform us.

Happy Birthday, Peter!