During morning Mass on August 14th, the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, I listened to the priest recount the story of his death at Auschwitz. I knew the story well, but on hearing it this time I realized just how important his intercession is against assisted suicide and euthanasia.
As a “poorly behaved” child, he asked the Blessed Mother for guidance. She miraculously appeared to him offering two crowns, one white for purity, one red for martyrdom; he chose both.
This apparition had a profound effect on his life, and he entered the minor seminary of the Conventual Franciscans at age 13 making his solemn vows at age 20. He traveled to Rome where he founded the Militia Immaculata in response to anti-Catholic demonstrations by the Freemasons. He founded an active Catholic press in Poland and another in Japan.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned for anti-Nazi publications and for housing Jews in his monastery; he was eventually sent to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. After a prisoner escape, the Nazis selected to kill 10 other inmates in order to prevent further attempts. Upon hearing the pleas for his wife and children of one man selected to die, Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
The ten were placed in a bunker to die of starvation and dehydration. Fr. Kolbe knelt in the center of the cell and led the others in prayer to Our Lady. After two weeks, all had died but him. Needing to clear the chamber, the Nazis hastened his death by injecting him with carbolic acid.
The eugenics movement began in England and from there spread to the United States and Germany, and other northern European countries. Through college programs, medicine, law, and cultural messaging they brought about infanticide, forced sterilization, abortion, and, in Germany, euthanasia.
In 1920, jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published Life Unworthy of Life advocating killing “useless” people; in the 1930’s the psychiatric community accepted the practice while media campaigns sought to change public opinion. In 1939, Hitler ordered the start of the Aktion T4 program that gave psychiatrists the power to decide which patients other doctors would kill.
From the Holocaust Memorial Museum: The “euthanasia” program required the cooperation of many German doctors, who reviewed the medical files of patients in institutions to determine which handicapped or mentally ill individuals should be killed. The doctors also supervised the actual killings. Doomed patients were transferred to six institutions in Germany and Austria, where they were killed in specially constructed gas chambers. Handicapped infants and small children were also killed by injection with a deadly dose of drugs or by starvation. The bodies of the victims were burned in large ovens called crematoria.
Eventually these techniques were used in the German concentration camps for widespread genocide. St. Maxmilian Kolbe died by these techniques.
Today we no longer use gas chambers, but starvation, dehydration, and lethal injection remain common, used by doctors and by patients, with the added technique of self-ingestion. Starvation and dehydration are commonly used to hasten death through denial, discouragement, or discontinuation of feeding tubes and intravenous fluids particularly for patients with dementia or disorders of consciousness.
In the UK, the Supreme Court ruled that doctors no longer needed to ask the courts to discontinue food and fluids for vegetative and minimally conscious patients if it is in his or her “best interest.” Yet new guidelines show that about 4 out of 10 of these patients are misdiagnosed and are actually aware.
In the U.S., we have seen the death rate for Alzheimer’s disease skyrocket a stunning 55% from 1999 to 2014 while all other major diseases saw a decline. 1999 was about the time the first studies were published showing feeding tubes were not beneficial for cancer patients, so it was assumed they did not help dementia patients, either. Next came the Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED) movement encouraging this as a means of suicide. Even lawyers are joining in, with articles like Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking: A Way to Hasten Death as an End-of-Life Option that suggest discussing the option with clients.
In Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, euthanasia is legal, so a doctor is legally permitted to inject patients in order to make them dead. This is supposed to be carefully safeguarded to protect patients, but experience shows this certainly is not the case. Examples are documented in the film, Fatal Flaws. A 2017 case in the Netherlands demonstrated that so long as the doctor acts “in good faith” then she can kill a patient, according to the Regional Euthanasia Review Committee. After receiving world-wide attention, the review committee then decided parts of the case “had crossed ethical boundaries” and so sent it to be reviewed by the Medical Complaints Board, who formally reprimanded her. Unfortunately, the patient is irreversibly dead.
Law, medicine, bioethics, and society must reestablish the inviolability of human life (see book review here) as its guiding principle, meaning one must not intentionally kill an innocent human being. This is distinctly different from vitalism, which requires human life to be preserved at all costs. Loss of respect for the inviolability of human life is at the root of all oppression.
St. Maximilian Kolbe is a witness to what happens when the inviolability of human life philosophy is lost. He suffered the same fate that so many vulnerable people have suffered, and so many more will suffer now that assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia are being legalized yet again. Why is this madness so appealing?
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.