Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: do no harm

Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
clothe us with compassion, kindness and humility.
-- make us want to be patient with everyone.
Teach us to be true neighbors to all in trouble and distress,
-- and so imitate you, the Good Samaritan.
--- From Liturgy of the Hours Intercessions,
Saturday morning, Fifth Week of Lent
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I had resolved to give up reading novels during Lent this year, but I found this book in the Catholic bookstore, and so that made it different (in my mind) from the other “entertainment” I usually read, or so I convinced myself. 
And so it was.
The book’s title, do no harm, contains no capital letters, which is a key telling point of the novel’s intent.  This is a book about humility in faith.  It is a book about great things, which often seem so small that we forget them.
The cover jacket summarizes the storyline:  “When a British emergency room doctor saves the life of a woman who apparently attempted suicide, he is accused of committing a crime and stands trial.  Not only is Dr. Matthew Kemble’s medical practice at risk, but also his liberty.  If he is found guilty of trespassing on a woman’s right to die, he could go to jail.” While a fictional novel, the story is set in the face of a real law, with real consequences --- for ALL those under it.
Dr. Kemble has cared for patients for over 25 years.  When the young woman is brought into the emergency room his immediate reaction to her suicide attempt is to treat her as he has done so many others over the years, and save her life.  But before he can begin treatment, the woman who brought her to the hospital notes that she has signed a “Living Will” document, which asks that no treatment be done if she is dying.  “Maybe we can get someone to look at this,” suggests another doctor.  “There might be a legal loophole.”  But Dr. Kemble responds: “There is no time.”  And after briefly considering alternatives he notes: “I did not train as a doctor so that I could stand back and leave a vulnerable patient to die.”  And so he lives out his oath to “do no harm,” and saves her life.
And his own life, as he has known it, ends.
On trail for assault, Dr. Kemble and his family are themselves assaulted, mentally and physically, as British society and media berate the doctor for doing what he was trained to do.  A right to die law which was passed as an option for sickly old or terminally ill people is applied to a young person who, as the story progresses, may have had many pressures applied to her to draw up the living will document, and to have attempted suicide.  Among those who may have pressured her is her brother, who will achieve great financial benefit if she dies.  So many things wrong with this law are brought out at the trial --- but, in the end, it IS the law.
I very much enjoyed this novel, a quick 3-hour read for me as my mom napped.  It was not a “preachy” novel, nor too one-sided --- a “right to die” person could easily read this novel and be unmoved by the doctor’s plight.  Nor is the novel heavily based on faith or morals, per se.  Although one picketer screams: “You have no right to force your religious beliefs on others,” the doctor does not seem to be overly religious.  And unlike some “Catholic” novels, it never cites any doctrines nor ascribes them to the characters.  Left somewhat unsaid is why Dr. Kemble takes his oath so seriously.  Implied perhaps, but never mentioned, is his perceived value of each life.
The issue of what are our natural rights to die is a complicated one (which I reflected on here in the recent past).  And while there can be debate over how much effort you should or should not take to prolong life, there should be less debate over any decisions to shorten life.  All life is a precious gift of God.  Suicide has always been rejected as evil by Christians, as is abetting suicide. 
Christ humbled himself and became man so that we might live.  When the sick were brought to him, he did not help them die --- some he even raised from the dead!  Valuing every person, He came to show man His love, of every man.  He walked among sinners and he spoke of the importance of faith, even in the face of sickness and pain.  This novel displays a world where faith in God has waned, and man thinks he is in total control, even of life, and of saying which life has value.
Jesus in his love and actions loudly proclaimed: “All life has value!  Don’t you understand?  You men seek to compare and judge one another, but I tell you I love each one.”
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?  (Luke 18:8)
I finished reading this book, I read the words from the Morning Prayer (at the start of this post), and I considered that question:  “Will He find any faith?”  Dr. Kemble, in this story, was a man who stood up in faith, acting as if he believed what Christ taught:  “Every man is worth dying for.”  The story was fiction, but the facts of the novel are not.  We all may be faced in the not too distant future with standing up (or not) and professing where our faith is: in God, or in man.  This is where our society is at today; this is the real choice we must make.  Christ died for the value of life; what are we willing to do?
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Perhaps it is just God’s way, but I find myself a little excited about the next book which I am beginning:  Frank Sheed’s Society and Sanity, a book about the foundations of our society, and how they are crumbling today.  It seems a great follow up to the novel I just read. 
It is a hard fight we face, my friends, and we need to know that we are not alone in our struggles.  And so I also read these comforting words this morning:
(The bishops) should therefore insist on the value placed by the Church’s teaching on the human person, his freedom and also his physical life; on the family, its unity and stability, and the procreation and education of children.  … They should present Christian teaching in a way appropriate to the needs of the times, that is, in a way that meets the difficulties and problems that people today find a special burden and source of anxiety.  They should also safeguard this teaching, instructing the faithful how to defend it.
--- From the decree on the pastoral office of bishops in the Church of the Second Vatican Council.

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