Sed Contra: Don’t Cross Here

“Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.” Thus the novelist Walker Percy, echoing Flannery O’Connor, foresaw the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision discovering a “right to die” in the Constitution. Once again we witness a court thinking with the woeful sentimentality of a talk show host. Judge Reinhardt, the author of the court’s opinion, speaks the language of a people who have lost their tragic sense—a people who would rather die than suffer.

To a culture living in the fast lane, some lives are increasingly considered burdensome. We flinch at the prospect of taking care of Grandma and measure lives with phrases dimly remembered from TV commercials—”It’s quality that counts!” Unfortunately, all quality disappears from view with the approach of a painful death.

In older days, people accepted the tragic dimensions of life, the unexpected setbacks, the unexplained suffering, the limits of satisfaction. Wise men, often trained in the law, counseled courage in the face of hardship, a commitment to life, not a surrender to convenient death. It’s hard not to be angry at such backward steps.

How can a culture that traffics in death be so proud of itself? It’s easy. Wrap yourself in a gauzy veneer of caring for others, of pursuing their happiness, of looking out for their rights, and feel good about yourself. When you look in the mirror you will see your “virtues,” actually the pseudo-virtues of a society losing its grip on the foundation of morality—human life ordered to the Creator.

More that twenty years ago we began by officially sanctioning mothers to kill their unborn children, now we are encouraging mothers and fathers—everyone—to wish their sickly parents dead. Notice that it is the middle, the strongest among us, who has taken the initiative against the two ends, the weakest and most dependent. One wonders: Who will be deemed unwelcome next?

It has been said that growing up is harder now because our youth have so many more decisions to make. Well, we’ve just added more, a big one. Perhaps this is one time we can be glad teenagers don’t read newspapers. It has been hard enough counseling depressed sixteen-year-olds with suicidal thoughts—now they will wonder if they too have a right to pull the trigger. Of course, we can be sure a caring teacher or social worker will inform them of their options!

The Ninth Circuit decision affects all of us, not just the elderly and the terminally infirm. It lets loose, with the authority of official sanction, a terrible and demonic idea—that one more choice we must all make in life is when and how to die.

We should not be surprised, then, if our youth begin to take their death option seriously, and to act on it. Clearly they have little love or respect for the adult world they must enter. Now they have a right to opt out of it altogether. Why shouldn’t they, when adults have made it so difficult to be born and so unnecessary to die in God’s time.

Persons have no right to die—this is a line in the sand that cannot be crossed. Jefferson’s inalienable right to life presupposes a deeper obligation to live, a duty that is never annulled by suffering. Give way on this and anything becomes possible, like the world without God envisioned by Dostoevsky. This surely is not the world we want to leave to our children.

Perhaps America can recover its tragic sense. Perhaps the destructive absurdity of the Ninth Circuit decision will send a wake-up call. Most likely it will take more than this. How about the spectacle of assisted suicides on a mass scale?

Only a few years ago I stood for several days at the bedside of friend dying of AIDS. He talked to me about ending his humiliating descent toward death. Together with his friends, I spoke to him about waiting for death and promised I would wait with him. When it came a few days later, death took a soul who had decided, in spite of the suffering, to wait on God.

As hard as it is to say, and to accept, death is one more painful experience in life that measures who we are. Death also measures our communities, their willingness to meet real needs. My friend died well. His example in those last days left was a gift of hope and dignity to those friends who waited with him. We who urged him to live saw something more than we expected, something miraculous, arise from a bed of terrible suffering.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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