This has been a difficult column to write, and it is even harder when you are third into the debate. I feel barely competent to write about assisted suicide, but I see no one else stating what I believe needs to be said. I am a Catholic, I have some education in Catholic moral theology and social ethics, and I am convinced by the reasons that the Catholic Church gives for opposing physician-assisted suicide. Therefore I will try to state and defend them in this column.
Catholics have frequently participated in this kind of debate by arguing in the same terms as those with whom they disagree. This is a time-honored tradition, practiced most famously by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). It takes the form in this case of showing that physician-assisted suicide does not have the practical advantages cited by proponents and conflicts with values that its supporters espouse. The practical dangers include likelihood that lethal quantities of prescribed barbiturates will end up on the street, possibilities of insurance fraud or fraudulent acquisition of drugs, and cost to the taxpayer. The secular value conflicts include inherent discrimination on the basis of age and disability and violation of the rights of family members.
I am impressed by the practical arguments that suggest this is a deeply flawed bill that could do great harm, but to my mind they do not go anywhere near far enough. What I believe need to be addressed are two other arguments in favor of assisted suicide, one based on a relativistic view of morality and one claiming that there is a “right” to suicide. The Catholic Church dismisses both these arguments, for good reasons.
The controversy over suicide is a textbook example of the difference between relativism and the recognition of moral absolutes. Relativism holds that there is no single standard by which an action can be judged good or bad, and such judgments all depend on intentions and circumstances. In application to whether proposed laws are good or bad, this approach would ask whether the good that might be done outweighs the harm, or vice versa. I see this point of view almost exclusively in the suicide debate.
The relativist tries to answer the questions: Will the suffering that could be avoided by assisted suicide in some circumstances be greater or less than the suffering likely to be caused by the availability of assisted suicide in other circumstances? How should the pain caused by a father shooting himself when unable to commit suicide in a less traumatic manner be weighed against the suffering of loved ones who lose a father too soon because of the availability of lethal drugs? I do not believe there is any satisfactory answer if the question is posed in this way.
As an alternative to this way of thinking, Pope St John Paul II (1920-2005) wrote in The Splendor of Truth that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” These acts include “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide….”
Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, all the great religions agree on the inherent value of every human life. From this principle all other moral conclusions follow. For the Christian, respect for life is enhanced by our belief that we are all created in God’s image.
Taking one’s own life or assisting in the intentional act of taking another’s life are denials of the value of the gift of life and rejections of God’s love and mercy. Suicide amounts to substituting one’s own will for the will of God at the most important possible moment. Not only does suicide abandon love of self, it is a negation of love for others. I would add my personal belief that the choice of suicide, if it is made without coercion and with full understanding of what is being done, is the ultimately selfish act, not only for theological reasons but because it inevitably inflicts suffering on those who love the victim.
Catholic, and I suspect all other Christian, bio-ethics recognizes that in the vast majority of cases, dying persons who choose suicide are not making such a choice. Many, perhaps all, are under such coercion from physical or psychological suffering, guilt for being a burden, or active pressure that they are not fully responsible for their actions. Thus nothing in the statement that suicide is wrong implies any judgment about an individual who makes that choice, but it does make it clear that we must try to prevent suicide in every possible way.
In particular, the duty of the Christian and society is to provide the loving care for the dying that can make the choice of suicide no longer an issue. The proper response to descriptions of the suffering of those who wished for assisted suicide is not to vote to make it possible, but to resolve to provide compassionate, loving support whenever a friend or loved one is nearing death so that they will not be compelled to hasten the end.
It is also important to recognize that physical suffering is not a duty or necessity for the dying. Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) was asked whether it is permissible to administer pain-medication to the dying in sufficient quantities to alleviate suffering, even if is known that the treatment will shorten life. His answer was “Yes.”
There is much less latitude in Catholic teaching for those who assist in the taking of a life either directly or indirectly. Again quoting from The Gospel of Life, “To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called “assisted suicide” means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested.” Even voting for such a law is concurring with the intention to commit suicide and would be considered “co-operation with evil.”
This is the moral case that the Catholic Church makes against assisted abortion. It is based on natural law and the recognition that “every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can … come to recognize … the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.”
Assisted suicide has also been supported as one of the “rights” that are constantly being invented by liberal society. One of the co-sponsors of the current Maryland bill is quoted as saying “I believe adult American citizens should be entitled to maximum autonomy and personal freedom. I don’t want a nanny government controlling my body.” A good libertarian statement by, I am ashamed to say, a Republican member of the Maryland Assembly. While I equally detest the nanny government telling me what I can eat or what kind of health insurance I can buy, the good Republican gives a definition of freedom that is just wrong.
Contrast his notion of freedom to that of Pope St John Paul II: “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ thus establishes the point of departure for the start of true freedom. It leads us to promote life actively, and to develop particular ways of thinking and acting which serve life. In this way we exercise our responsibility towards the persons entrusted to us and we show, in deeds and in truth, our gratitude to God for the great gift of life.”
The claim that there is a right to suicide confuses freedom to make an arbitrary choice with freedom to choose that which is right and good in light of our natures. In the Catholic tradition, freedom means being able to set aside compulsions of habit, social pressure, depression, anxiety, fear, pride and all the other influences that drive us to do things we regret, in order to discern and make the choices that lead us toward our greatest good. It does not mean being able to choose in a morally indifferent way whatever those feelings incline us to do.
So if rights derive from our nature, and respect for life is part of our nature, there can be no such thing as a right to suicide in any form. Far from recognizing a natural right, any law authorizing assisted suicide would, in the words of the 1980 Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia, “be legalizing a case of suicide-murder, contrary to the fundamental principles of absolute respect for life and of the protection of every innocent life.”
For an account of Catholic teaching on the subject far clearer than what I can write, I recommend the 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia and Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life . Or just the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2.
David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.