Respect Life: Assisted Suicide
What do we, as Catholics, believe about assisted suicide?
The following are some of the many arguments used to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The Primary Religious Reason
The most obvious religious reason to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia regards the human soul: all efforts must be made for the prosperity and well-being of that soul, regardless of the state of the body in which the soul rests. A person who commits suicide harms their very soul, the entity within themselves that is eternal. God is the creator of each human, and each person is endowed with a purpose while living on the earth. Therefore, no one should attempt or even consider suicide as a means of ending life prematurely and destroying the purpose for which they were created.
While theologians have not given definitive answers regarding where a soul goes that commits suicide, we can infer from the Bible and other sacred texts that the act is gravely contrary to the will and purpose given to us by God.
With regard to non-religious reasons, four basic arguments are used to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia.
1. Most People Are Not in Pain
The vast majority of the people who commit suicide through assisted suicide, or who are killed through euthanasia, are not in pain. On the contrary, the two most common reasons why people commit assisted suicide are fear of being a burden to their loved ones or society, and the patient wanting to be in control. Pain is not mentioned in the top reasons why people commit assisted suicide, and if it were, very strong medications like morphine are available to take away the pain they feel. In Oregon, seven reasons are listed in the “Death With Dignity Act Annual Report” as reasons for a person requesting assisted suicide; the sixth out of the seven is pain, and in the majority of the these cases the patient isn’t in any pain at all but only has a fear of pain.
2. A Doctor’s Purpose Is to Heal, Not Kill
A doctor’s goal, and in fact the Hippocratic oath itself that doctors swear by, is to heal not to kill. Physicians who kill their patients not only commit a grave act against their patients, but they scandalize society and normalize the idea that a person who is unhappy can or should take their own life. Any person, whether they are a doctor or not, who participates in suicide violates the integrity of the person who dies. The doctor’s profession is one of healing, not killing.
3. Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Devalue Human Life
Suicide ultimately devalues human life and leads people toward the conclusion that humans are not beings of infinite value and worth, but disposable. Humans have an intrinsic dignity to them regardless of how productive they are or how healthy they are. A person who is confined to a wheelchair because of an accident or illness is not any less worthy to live than a person who is mobile. The same holds true with regard to age and beauty: A baby is not productive because it cannot hold a job, do house chores or work like an adult can, but we nevertheless rightly hold that a baby has intrinsic value simply because it is human and exists. The elderly should always be reminded that they have infinite value (whether or not this is explained in relation to God) and that even to consider taking his or her own life would be a tragedy.
4. Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Lead Down a Slippery Slope
Perhaps the most commonly cited argument to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia is that it begins a slippery slope toward worse evils. When we begin down a path in which humans are considered to be disposable, we ultimately head toward even more grave errors such as genocide. Aristotle once observed that small errors at the beginning of an argument will ultimately lead to large errors at the end. The same principle holds true when even a small exception is introduced into a life and death principle. Many countries could be studied with regard to the slippery slope, but the one most studied has been the Netherlands. In the 1980s the Dutch government stopped prosecuting physicians who committed voluntary euthanasia on their patients but did not legalize the practice. By the 1990s, more than 50 percent of the acts of euthanasia were no longer voluntary, meaning that they were committed by the doctors but without any request. In 2001, euthanasia was made legal in the Netherlands, and then in 2004 it was decided that children also could be euthanized. Euthanasia went from illegal but not prosecuted, to legal, to legal and including children.
As a result, it took the Dutch approximately 30 years for their medical practices to decline to the point that Dutch doctors were able to engage in the kind of euthanasia activities that got some of the German doctors hanged after the Holocaust. Both German doctors during World War II and the Dutch doctors today kill disabled babies without the consent of their parents. Approximately 21 percent of the infant euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands occur without request or consent of their parents, and if there were consent by the parents, would this be any more tolerable?
- The USCCB (US Catholic bishops) has an excellent list of articles about end-of-life issues and assisted suicide.
- The Diocese of Arlington has an Advanced Medical Directive designed for Catholics in the state of Virginia. Individual parishes also offer events about this topic.
- The National Catholic Bioethics Center offers resource information on this topic.
- Virginia Catholic Conference: Tell legislators assisted suicide is wrong for Virginia.
- Assisted Suicide: The Ethics, the Laws, and the Dangers by Richard M. Doerflinger. A trenchant piece that covers a number of aspects of assisted suicide. One of the most widely cited pieces.
- Why the Hippocratic Oath Prohibits Physician-Assisted Suicide by T.A. Cavanaugh. More narrowly focused and of special interest to medical personal, but still a significant read to those outside of medicine who don’t yet understand the risks of assisted suicide to both practitioners and patients.
- The Abandonment of Professional Ethics, Individual Nurses, and the Patient by Stephen J. Heaney, Dianne Marie Johnson, Sarah Spangenberg, and Patrick G. Spencer. Geared to the nursing community, but again worth perusing by all in the Catholic Christian community pondering the corruption of medicine by assisted suicide.
- Making Death Easier Makes Life Harder by Richard Stith. Why assisted suicide leads to a “culture of disdain” for the disabled and elderly.
- Expanding Euthanasia during the Pandemic by Brian Bird. Don’t think assisted suicide provides a slippery slope to graver mistakes? Just look at developments in the United States’ northern neighbor.
- Brain Tumors, Lethal Drugs, and the Art of Dying the growing movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide raises fundamental questions about how to die well.