Euthanasia and the Catholic Perspective

Helping your own relatives to die really could be a good thing. At least, that was the point of two recent pieces on public radio. The pieces were made to sound balanced by bringing in a small dissenting voice towards the end, but the point was clear. With Vermont passing a physician-assisted suicide law last year, I thought an article on this topic might be timely. Lacking good information people tend to be swayed by an appeal to compassion. But assisted suicide is not compassionate, as you will see.

Suicide was a common part of pagan cultures such as the ancient Greeks and the Japanese. Someone who had brought shame on themselves or their family could be expected to end their own life as a way of righting the wrong. Suicide could be good and noble thing in pagan culture. People might also commit suicide for personal or existential reasons. Even the Bible talks about assisted suicide (parental advisory: not suitable for small children).

The pagans were at least wise enough to not let their doctors kill them. Two lines from the Hippocratic Oath stand out:

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

The wisdom is clear and sobering. Doctors have a thorough knowledge of the human body and what makes us tick. Doctors' knowledge of medicine also makes them very effective killers. Allowing a doctor to prescribe medicine that can kill you begs the question: Is this doctor right now trying to heal me, or trying to kill me? For this reason, a doctor should always try to heal and never get mixed up in killing. It is very dangerous to tell a doctor that sometimes he should try to heal, and sometimes he can kill instead. This will profoundly affect medicine. Advocates promote physician-assisted suicide because that makes it look like medicine. Paying a hit man to kill you would be just as effective and probably much cheaper, given the cost of health care these days. But legalizing hit-man assisted suicide would look like what it really is: murder instead of mercy.

Besides the problem of killer doctors, legalizing murder is dangerous for vulnerable populations who could easily become victims. What if a family doesn't want to wait for their inheritance? They could drop hints that grandma is being a burden and being selfish because she keeps wanting to live when death is so easy, painless, and cheap. Teenagers are easily convinced the world would be a better place without them. Handicapped, the chronically ill, even the homeless might be exploited by legalized killing. Advocates promise safeguards. However, in the case of the Vermont law, they gutted the law of all safeguards to assure passage. They revealed that they weren't concerned about how the law was used; they just wanted it legalized. A couple years earlier, a similar bill died (a painless death) after an advocate cooed that assisted suicide would lower health-care costs. Society will hurt itself if it begins to see persons as burdens rather than blessings. This isn't mercy. Mercy is about suffering with a person. It is changing their bandages and holding their hands and letting them know you haven't given up on them. Mercy helps a person find value even in a difficult life. Mercy doesn't encourage others to give up on themselves.

Assisted suicide is a diabolical bait-and-switch. We all want to live a good life. Society promises that through medicine and technology, we can live the good life we dream of. However, great advances in medicine and technology have not succeeded in guaranteeing a good life. Those who put their hopes in technology are disappointed over and over again. How they are told, "Unfortunately, we can't give you the good life you are looking for; can I interest you in a good death instead?" It is our own mortality that can't be cured, and killing yourself can be a desperate attempt to not surrender to the truth of our own weakness. The rise of assisted suicide is a sign that our culture has lost its will to live. We are slipping away from the Light of Christianity and back into pagan darkness. Assisted suicide makes perfect sense in a world where God has all but disappeared from our consciousness. If there is no higher power than us, why shouldn't a person be allowed to determine when his or her life ends? The more we view ourselves as masters of our own destiny, the more we are tempted to extend our own power until we control even life and death. But control is an illusion.

Why do Christians oppose suicide? The whole world as a gift from the hands of a loving God. No one owns his own life; all life is on loan from the Almighty. He gives us life and He can take it away at any moment. We are fragile but precious in His eyes, even those that we might consider worthless. The only "life not worth living" is a selfish life. You can tell the value of something by the price that was paid for it. You were bought with the priceless blood of Jesus. The rest of the world says that suffering is to be avoided at any cost. Christians value and even embrace suffering. Jesus, the Son of God, willingly suffered as an act of love and compassion. Christians who suffer are made like God. By sharing in his suffering they also share in his victory over death. Christians believe that the Lord never leaves our side and suffers with us. Moments of great suffering can also be very precious. Those who willingly accept their human mortality transform it from a burden into a blessing. Anyone who has walked with a loved one through death can attest that it was exhausting but also life-changing. Burdens become blessings when they are borne with love.

Christians view suicide as a terrible affront to the creator. A person who chooses suicide rejects the value of his or her own life and says, in a sense, "I want to be God; I want the power to decide my own life, and my own death." One will then appear before the judgement seat of God with blood on his hands. Things might not go so well at the final judgement. A word of caution here: We should leave the judging to God. We know that many circumstances (such as mental illness or extreme fear) should be taken into account. We do not know the final fate of anyone and so we pray that God might have mercy on them, just as we ask him to have mercy on all of us sinners. Given the gravity of the situation, it is all the more urgent that the laws of our land reflect the truth about life and death. Physician-assisted suicide denies the truth of our human existence in a desperate attempt to make us Lord of both the living and the dead. That seat is already taken. Lord have Mercy.