In the coming year it looks as if there will be very aggressive attempts in both courts and legislatures to advance physician-assisted suicide (or as its proponents prefer to call it, the “right to die”). The recent legalization of physician-assisted suicide in California was a sad harbinger of what is being attempted in other states as well. Here in the Archdiocese of Washington, both the D.C. City Council and the Maryland state legislature are debating bills to make it legal.
Thankfully, a rather significant coalition of disabilities advocates, medical professionals, pro-life organizations, and faith communities opposes this so-called “right-to-die” legislation. The American Medical Association (AMA) also opposes euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, stating that they are “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”
Why should we as Catholics oppose the legalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia? There are many reasons. Some of them are informed by our faith, others are more rooted in natural law or reason, and still others flow from the consequences that would ultimately result from the legalization.
Let’s consider first what the Catechism teaches about euthanasia/assisted suicide:
Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia [or assisted suicide] consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted (CCC 2277-2279).
Thus the Catechism defines euthanasia/assisted suicide as the intentional ending of a life, whether by direct means such as injection with deadly drugs, or indirectly through the refusal to provide food and/or water. The distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide lies in who initiates the final act that actually causes death, the patient himself (assisted suicide) or a third party (euthanasia).
One cannot emphasize enough that allowing a person to die by refusing or withdrawing burdensome treatments, or by not providing machines such as ventilators that are unlikely to be therapeutic, is not euthanasia/assisted suicide. Church teaching does not require that one pursue every treatment possible. The patient must discern carefully with information supplied by his medical team along with an assessment of his personal resources—spiritual, psychological, emotional, familial, and financial—whether or not a particular treatment is excessively burdensome. However, even for an imminently dying person, basic care (which usually includes nutrition and hydration, even if administered through a tube) must be provided.
Pain management for those with terminal illnesses, for those with degenerative diseases, and for the dying is allowed and encouraged, even if the medication has the unintended side effect of shortening life. Arguments that dying is too painful and therefore a patient should be euthanized or assisted in dying are not valid, because it is very rare today that pain cannot be managed reasonably through advancements in the growing specialty of palliative care.
Let’s consider some other reasons, both religious and natural, that we should oppose assisted suicide/euthanasia. I’ll begin with the natural reasons that should concern us all, including those of different faiths and those with no faith tradition. Then I’ll move to the religious reasons that should influence us who believe.
- Legalized assisted suicide grants, by government decree, certain citizens, i.e. medical professionals, death-dealing authority; this in turn results in irreparable damage to the doctor-patient relationship. Introducing death as a medical treatment option that can be offered by health care professionals transforms a trusted profession that has been solely dedicated to healing for millennia. It is because of this dedication to healing that doctors have enjoyed such respect and trust from their patients and society as a whole. The idea that government can give death-dealing power to certain individuals means that they can also enforce and regulate it. With an already broken healthcare system plagued with a spending problem, it is not difficult to imagine that assisted suicide will be an easy “fix” to our spending problem and legitimate treatment options will be refused.
In an attempt to limit who “qualifies” for assisted suicide, the legislation states that an individual must have been given a prognosis of six months or less left to live. All doctors who deal with terminal illnesses on a regular basis will tell you that these prognoses are an educated guess at best. It is dangerous and irresponsible to allow patients who have received such a prognosis (and who may be disoriented and vulnerable) to make lethal decisions based upon a “guess.”
- Legalized assisted suicide will likely lead to poorer healthcare and increased pressure on the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the traumatically injured. Those who advocate for the physically and mentally disabled have good reason to fear that pressure will be applied to euthanize the disabled and those who have been in traumatic accidents. As the concept of “a life not worth living” grows, and as the idea gains traction that disability (even milder forms) is a fate worse than death, those who struggle with disability may well be easy targets for those who advise suicide. Some may feel pressured to no longer be a “burden.” Many will have the sense of their dignity being lessened. More can be read here: Disability and Euthanasia – History and Concerns.
- Granting individuals the right to end their life ultimately threatens us all because it implicitly denies the dignity of the dying. Failing to understand this dignity will lead to poorer care and will increase pressure on the elderly and dying to end their lives prematurely so that they are no longer a burden.
- In other words, the “right to die” too easily becomes the “duty to die.” What begins sociologically through pressure not to be a burden, soon enough becomes economically necessary because insurance benefits may vanish. And one can’t ignore the possibility of eventual legal pressure. The experience in the Netherlands is particularly sobering. More can be read on that here: Euthanasia Law in the Netherlands.
There are many more reasons to oppose euthanasia/assisted suicide purely on rational grounds. You can find more of these here: www.noDCSuicide.org.
Now I would like to move on to those reasons that originate from our faith in Jesus Christ.
One of my privileges as a priest is to have accompanied many people on their final journey toward death. I’ve also accompanied their family members. In making these journeys, I have discovered that some of God’s greatest and most necessary work takes place in and during the process of natural death.
- Natural death is an important part of life that should be respected and accepted, not rejected. Some very important things happen on our deathbed that assist us spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally. These things happen not only to us but to our loved ones as well.I have seen pride melt away; I have seen powerful contrition for past sins emerge. I have seen gratitude intensify, both in the one who is dying and in the loved ones who surround him or her. I have heard beautiful words like, “I love you,” “I am proud of you,” “I will miss you.” I have seen people let go and let God take over. I have seen forgiveness, tenderness, appreciation, and love being shared as never before. There is also the beautiful gift of listening and waiting, along with the learning of lessons that will never be forgotten.I do not say that there is not grief and emotional pain; there is. But that is not all there is; there is beauty and love, too. And these are important and necessary. Perhaps some of the most necessary and profound things take place on our deathbed and at the deathbed of others.Supporters of the legalization of assisted suicide and/or euthanasia might argue that these beautifully human and transformative moments also occur when one takes death into his own hands. I have no doubt that many tearful goodbyes are shared and some reconciliation among family members occurs as well. But there is a very different quality and a transparent authenticity within these moments when one has surrendered his/her life and control of it over to God.
- The dying process helps us to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, and God says this is necessary for us. As God directs Samuel, Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature … For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Even in the painful sight of once-strong individuals reduced to weakness, there is a kind of strange beauty and we must ask the Lord to give us the “eyes to see” (cf. Mt 13:16). In the nursing homes of this land are people who once ran businesses, raised families, and led communities. Now many have returned to a kind of childhood, even infancy. Some cannot walk, some have to be fed, some can no longer talk, some clutch dolls, and some must wear diapers.All this seems so horrible to many, but important things are happening. These are not conditions that any of us would willingly choose or wish upon another. However, not one of these losses, even the significant loss of intellectual capacity in such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diminishes worth or dignity. I do not want to minimize the pain that accompanies these losses—and the pain is not limited to the patient alone. Often family members and caregivers undergo significant stress and experience the pain of our Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross.But again, something important is happening.Are those in nursing homes really so different from you and me? Maybe death and dying are the “place” where all worldly status, all privilege, all inequalities are leveled and we simply become who we are. Are we not all little children to God? Does He not have to provide for every one of us in our need? Does He not have to feed us, clothe us, and enable us to speak? Perhaps it is just that with the elderly and dying the illusion of self-sufficiency has been shed. The Lord says, Unless you change and become like little children you will not inherit the kingdom of God (Mat 18:3).
- As Catholics, we can never affirm the world’s claim “My body is my own and I can do with it as I please.” For a believer, this is simply not true. Scripture says, You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). We are the steward, not the owner, of our body; we belong to God. As disciples, we seek to imitate Christ as He surrendered to His own impending death and gave us His Body at the Last Supper: This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me (Lk 22:19).
- As Christians, we must once again reaffirm our acceptance of the cross. No one likes the cross—it is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:22)—but we have been taught by Christ that the cross is both necessary and saving. And we must insist, at least among our own number, upon the belief expressed by St. Paul: So we do not lose heart. Though our body is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).
Think carefully before you support assisted suicide/euthanasia through some notion of “compassion.” The truest compassion is to want for someone what he or she truly needs in order to be saved. Ultimately, only God can say what this is. We do not have dignity because we can control our own lives; we have dignity because our life is in God’s hands.
The Maryland Catholic Conference and the Washington D.C. Catholic Conference have been working with the coalitions Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide (www.stopassistedsuicidemd.org) and No DC Suicide (www.nodcsuicide.org) to warn people about how the bills threatens vulnerable populations, including those who are sick, elderly, disabled, or who lack adequate, affordable healthcare.
Please become informed and act against the legalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia.