Assisted Suicide: What Are Catholics For and Against?

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This is the first of a five-part series on assisted suicide by Archdiocesan Theologian Brett Salkeld.  It is being co-published on his Archdiocesan blog sAsk-a-Theologian and in the Prairie Messenger every two weeks.  Parishes are very welcome to print and distribute this material in their Sunday bulletins and to provide the link to this blog in their bulletins and other communications platforms, i.e., Facebook pages, e-mail listservs, etc. ____________________________________________

When faced with difficult discussions surrounding highly politicized hot button topics, it is important to be very clear about just what one is arguing for and against.  In our sound-bite, talking-point media (and social media) culture, it is very easy to get sidelined by being manipulated into arguing for things that one does not actually believe. 

Have a look at these two statements:

“An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.”

“I know that keeping people on life support, so drugged up they are a mere shadow of their former self, is not the best option for everyone.”

Both of these are things I’ve heard on Facebook in response to posts raising concerns about physician-assisted suicide. Both, in different ways, misrepresent the position of those who believe physician-assisted suicide is not in people’s or the nation’s best interests.

The second is the easier one to refute:  no one is advocating keeping people alive indefinitely.  Everyone knows full well that simply allowing a person to die is often the right decision in health care.  Indeed, it will be the right decision for each of us at some point or other.  Furthermore, it is even sometimes permissible, according to Catholic teaching, to administer treatments for pain that can foreseeably shorten life span.  No one believes in keeping people alive as long as physically possible, quality of life be damned.  We believe in not killing people.

The first is much more slippery – because it is true.  But its truth is irrelevant to the question.  It only true because everybody dies.  And so, despite its surface truth, it is deceptive.  According to its airtight logic, murder does not increase deaths, nor do epidemics or natural disasters.  The only way to increase deaths is to increase reproduction!  Nor does the fact that a death prevents future suffering make it an automatic good.  It is a good bet that if I die today I will avoid significant suffering.  Actually, the best way to avoid suffering is to never exist.

The supposition underlying both these statements is that those who oppose physician-assisted suicide necessarily support needless suffering.

And let us not imagine that social media is the only place such false suppositions are employed.  On the day when the Supreme Court ruled the former legal prohibition on physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional, this was the lead from CBC anchor Wendy Mesley:

“For an incurably ill Canadian suffering unbearable pain, the choice has long been clear: endure or take their own life.  Today, this country’s top court called that choice cruel, struck down the laws that created it and opened the door to a third option: doctor assisted death.”

The same false dichotomy is at the heart of all three statements:  one is either for assisted suicide or for prolonging suffering.

The idea of relieving suffering or, heaven forbid, sharing the burden of it, is never mentioned.

But this is precisely what we are for.  We are committed to easing suffering in as far as that is possible and to sharing the burden of whatever suffering remains.

Because of this, we do not simply oppose assisted suicide for abstract reasons of principle while holding out the easing of suffering and accompaniment in suffering as a kind of consolation prize.  We oppose assisted suicide because, even in its well-meaning attempt to limit suffering, it will itself unavoidably introduce new forms of suffering. 

This will be addressed in more detail later in this series.  For now, let it suffice to say the introducing suicide as a socially approved solution for one set of problems makes it very difficult to denounce suicide as a solution for other problems (we’ll look at this in part 2), and that the social acceptability and promotion of suicide for some makes it impossible for many people to avoid the devastating question of whether they have a duty to die (part 3).

Related to the falsification of the position of those who oppose physician-assisted suicide (and, let it be said, any suicide) from “Thou Shalt Not Kill” into “Thou Shalt Prolong Suffering” is the manipulation of language.  Two terms in particular stand out here:  “dignity” and “compassion.”

We are told that assisted suicide is “death with dignity” and that those who oppose it are promoting undignified deaths for our sick and elderly.  We are told stories of people who cannot recognize loved ones, or control bodily functions.  We are told that suicide can preserve the dignity of these people.

But what kind of definition of dignity underlies such arguments?

Is dignity the kind of thing that can be lost with the control of one’s sphincter?  And, if so, what are the implications for the dignity of so many of our friends and neighbours with mental and physical health issues?

On this, we must take a firm stand.  A person’s dignity is rooted in their humanity (and, for the Christian, in their creation by God and in God’s image).  It is not the kind of thing that can be lost through accidents of personal history and health.  A person in a diaper has as much dignity as you or I whether they are 1 or 100.

Socially promoted suicide does not respect the dignity of the person by preserving them from the normal processes that often accompany death and dying.  It works against a proper understanding of human dignity by saying that some lives are worth more than others.

Similarly, we are told that allowing suicide is the compassionate thing to do in the face of suffering.  But compassion means “to suffer with.”  Research and experience shows that people contemplating assisted suicide fear three things:  physical pain, being alone, and being a burden.  When these concerns are addressed, the desire for suicide disappears.  That is because no one really wants suicide, they are just convinced there is no other way out of their situation.

True compassion does not say, “You’re right, there’s no way out.  Your best bet is to kill yourself or have someone else kill you.”  It says, “You are not a burden.  I will not let you die alone.  We will do everything we can to manage your pain.”

One of the great dangers of assisted suicide is that in promoting a false version of compassion, it undermines real compassion throughout our society.  It promotes the radical individualism that drives us further from each other and impedes our ability to be deeply with those who cannot care for themselves all the time, that is to say, all of us.

So, what are Catholics for?  We are for working to reduce pain and suffering wherever possible.  We are for recognizing the dignity of every human person, regardless of their health or age.  We are for a compassionate response to the suffering of each person.  We believe that no one is a burden, or – perhaps better – that everyone is a burden and that life is better when we carry each other.

What are we against?  We are against killing people.  It is that simple.  And, by taking this simple stand, we can offer hope to many vulnerable and threatened people in a society that has put them at risk by confusing the basic distinction between killing someone and letting someone die.  More on that hope to follow.