Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are increasingly being considered as acceptable choices to end one’s life. Cases such as Brittney Maynard have put a public face on this issue. We rightly feel sympathy for men and women who are coping with terminal illnesses and extreme physical and psychological pain. What does the Catholic Church teach about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and why?
Our starting point is to understand that human life is sacred because it comes from God. God created us to have a particular and special relationship with him for all eternity. God is the source of all life and it is to God that we return at the end of our life. Because of this, destroying an innocent human being is never morally acceptable.
Each of us has a special duty to be responsible for our own lives. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.” (CCC 2280) Suicide is contrary to this duty and goes against the love of self, neighbor, and God. (cf. CCC 2281) Likewise, since physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are done with the intent of the person wishing to end their own life, these too are morally unacceptable.
The duty to protect and defend the dignity of every human person is particularly important when life is at its weakest. Specifically, we owe a particular duty to proclaim the sacredness of human life and to assist those who are the most vulnerable including the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. For those who are sick or dying, we have a duty to offer appropriate care to relieve their pain (frequently called palliative care), medical treatment that is reasonable for the patient’s condition, and food and water.
Euthanasia vs. Physician-Assisted Suicide
Though often used interchangeably, they actually refer to two different things.
In euthanasia, the doctor intentionally kills the patient by either an act or omission. It is implied that the doctor is doing so at the request of or following the desires of the patient although, in reality, this might not be the case. Typically, it involves the doctor giving the patient a lethal injection.
In physician-assisted suicide, the doctor provides the patient with information, guidance, and means to take his or her own life. The patient, however, performs the final act. Frequently, this involves swallowing a combination of lethal pills that stop the patient’s breathing and heart functions.
Choices and Compassion
Our response as Catholics to demands for legalization and use of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide should be to ask two questions:
- Does it promote real, free choice?
- Does it promote real, true compassion?
Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Do Not Promote Free Choice
Despite arguments that people should have “a choice” at the end of life, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide do not actually promote choice.
First, many people seeking to end their lives suffer from depression and other psychological conditions. It is not unexpected that one may have suicidal thoughts when one is suffering from depression, anxiety, or other psychological conditions. However, we have hotlines to try to prevent suicides for a reason: medicine recognizes that suicidal thoughts are because people are lacking the mechanisms to cope with the particular problem. Additionally, most people who survive a suicide attempt are glad that they did not actually die.
Yet if we look at statistics for Oregon and Washington, less than 5% of people who died as a result of physician-assisted suicide received a psychiatric or psychological evaluation to ensure that a mental condition was not impacting the person’s judgment.
Second, often times people feel undue pressure from society and family that they ought to end their lives. Financial fears, fears of being dependent on others, and fear of being unable to participate in enjoyable activities have been shown to be the top reasons people have sought physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington. These social factors are directly or indirectly encouraging people to end their lives.
Finally, we should be wary that voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide may soon turn into involuntary euthanasia. Belgium data from 2013 showed that 1.7% of all euthanasia deaths occurred without an explicit request from the patient. That 1.7% translates into over 1,000 people who died due to euthanasia without explicitly asking to die. What kind of “choice” did those people have?
Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Do Not Promote True Compassion
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are focused on eliminating the person, not on eliminating the suffering. For example, in Canada, which legalized assisted suicide in 2015, 70-80% of the population does not have access to palliative to help in controlling their pain. Interestingly, although many people will state that they do not to suffer a “painful death,” a 1996 study showed that dying patients experienced significant pain were more opposed to assisted suicide than the general public. The reason? These patients were afraid resources would be focused on euthanasia instead of pain relief.
In fact, legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide may actual increase a patient’s suffering by heightening the feeling of being a burden and decreased palliative quality. For example, in 2015 a 54-year-old British father of 3 went to the Netherlands to be euthanized after a cancer diagnosis for fear of being a burden on his family.
In countries that have legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, more and more cases of “suffering” are being found to be “serious” enough to justified assisted death. For example, chronic, but not terminal, illness, disability, and depression are being allowed as reasons to end someone’s life. In 2015, 109 demented person and 56 patients with psychiatric disorders were euthanized in the Netherlands. A Netherlands clinic also approved euthanasia for 11 people whose only complaint was being “tired of living.”
Is this really the best response that we can offer people?
A Catholic Response
Our response as Catholics should be to extend genuine compassion and mercy towards those who are ill, contemplating suicide, or elderly. This requires offering practical alternatives and positive solutions, particularly for those who are vulnerable. This includes true palliative care for those patients who are experiencing physical pain. This means offering counseling and psychological assistance to people who are struggling with mental illness or are feeling depressed because of a medical diagnosis.
Even though we are young and end of life issues seem far off, there are things that you can do to build a culture of life! We can volunteer at hospitals or nursing homes to provide company to the sick or elderly. We can support families in our schools and parishes who are struggling with illness. This might mean offering to mow their lawn for free, taking them a home-cooked meal, baby-sitting for free, or simply offering a compassionate and listening ear. We can pray for the sick and elderly who are listed in our parish bulletins.
You can learn more about Church teaching and concrete ways to help by clicking here.