Suicide and the legalization of physician assisted suicide seem to appear in headlines more and more. Elected officials such as Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, increasingly favor legalization of physician assisted suicide as “the right thing to do” with promises that “we are going to get it done.” Mainstream media addresses suicide positively. Consider the BBC’s new sitcom provocatively titled “Way To Go” as it portrays assisted suicide “with great warmth and care and sensitivity.” Meanwhile, in California judges sympathetic to suicide and euthanasia on demand are, as the LA Times reports, “going easier on assisted suicide among the elderly.”
These are but a few examples of the systematic push to create a “right to die.” Such efforts to promote physician aided suicide appear to be schizophrenic in light of multi-million dollar campaigns aimed to prevent the 33,000 suicides every year in the United States. For every “successful” attempt there are 30 failed attempts, leading the Surgeon General to remind Americans that “We have no time to waste…each of us has a role in preventing suicide.”
As Catholic citizens of this nation who recognize that every human life is sacred from its beginning to its natural end we must make every reasonable effort to reverse the trend toward seeing suicide as a legitimate and compassionate medical treatment.
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A natural starting point is Evangelium vitae, where Blessed John Paul II stressed that “to kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life!” We are stewards, not masters, of our lives. Life is entrusted to us as God’s gift and we are to cherish it. The choice for suicide, therefore, is a direct offense against God.
Unfortunately modern man tends to see life as having value only if it includes pleasure, comfort, and full exercise of freedom. Suffering or even the potential to suffer is viewed as an intolerable burden from which individuals have a right to free themselves. Suicide, we are told, is compassionate relief from the undesirable. But, as John Paul taught, “[i]n reality, what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is seen to be senseless and inhumane” (64). Suicide is a stark contradiction to the dignity of the person, it offends the basic inclination to preserve life, and it offends the rightful love of self called for by Jesus Christ.
Suicide not only offends our relationship with both God and ourselves, it is a rejection of neighbor as well. The Catechism states that “[suicide] unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations” (CCC 2281). Family and friends who are left in the wake of a loved one’s suicide can attest to this sad truth.
John Paul II therefore affirms that “[s]uicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice” (66).
But what about the prospects of salvation for the person who commits suicide?
John Paul II recognized the negative influence our culture of death has upon each of us, and how it may “induce” someone to commit suicide. He notes that this coercive impact from the culture may lessen culpability or subjective responsibility. The Catechism states that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). The Church’s teaching recognizes that those who choose suicide may suffer from a diminished freedom that leads the Church to teach that “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (2283).
Even if culpability is diminished, suicide remains “a gravely immoral act.” We do not presume either Heaven or Hell, but entrust the deceased to God’s justice and mercy. Suicide and participating in suicide is “a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy” and “an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested” (EV 66).
Suicide is contrary to love of self, neighbor, and God. It trivializes the inherent dignity of the person and when laws condone such an act they harm the common good. Catholics are called to oppose any law that would legalize physician assisted suicide, and to do all that we can to correct the false view of compassion that sees suicide as a legitimate option.
Editor’s note: The image above was painted by John Everett Millais in 1852 and depicts Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.