Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Why the Church Opposes Assisted Suicide
In addition to the ancient scourges of
poverty, hunger and war, new crimes against life have emerged. In
some ways these crimes are more urgent because they are falsely
or erroneously justified in the name of freedom and seek authorization
by the state.
In the midst of a culture that often
denies the value of human life, I want to present the teaching of
the Church in regard to the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
Not only has there been a sharp increase in the publicity surrounding
national and local incidents of active physician-assisted suicide,
but there is a nationwide effort to legalize the practice, state
The emerging debate surrounding physician-assisted
suicide forces all the members of society to pause. It clarifies
the shared assumptions about life and death that our laws are meant
to protect. The Church has a rightful place in this public discussion
because the issues surrounding death are not only medical and legal,
but they are religious and moral as well.
The light of faith
As Christians, our faith shapes our attitude
toward sickness and death in three important ways. First, we
believe that human life is good. Human life is a gift from God
to be cherished and respected because every human being is created
in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26). Our Church teaches that
we are stewards of life and in heeding God—s command, "Thou shall
not kill" (Ex 20:13), we recognize that we cannot dispose of life
as we please.
Second, we believe that the Son of
God became man to reconcile us with the Father and to be our model
of holiness (Mt 11:29). His sacrifice of himself is the model
of the new law, "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12).
By living among us, Jesus has created a new communion or solidarity
among us (1 Cor 12:26-27), making everyone a neighbor worthy of
our charity and care (Lk 10:25-36).
Third, we believe that we are redeemed
by Christ and called to share eternal life with him. The Christian
vision of death is expressed in the funeral liturgy when we pray:
"Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When
the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting
dwelling place in heaven" (Preface for Christian Death I).
As Christians, we face death with the
confidence of our faith in him who has conquered death by his resurrection
(Rom 6:3-9; Phil 3:10-11). Christians live in the world knowing
that although the advantages that science and technology provide
enrich our lives, they will never exempt us from our own personal
encounter with the mystery of death. Christ has overcome death.
He has rendered death—s dividend barren. Still, each one of us must
follow the Lord in his triumphant passage to life. Our faith does
not dispense us from this encounter with the vanquished foe that
we call death.
These convictions guide the Church—s
teaching and practice with regard to euthanasia and physician-assisted
suicide. In the recently revised Catechism of the Catholic Church,
the Church condemns absolutely "an act or omission which, of itself
or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering" (#2277).
The meaning of this statement can be made clear by two examples.
1) Active euthanasia
occurs when a doctor or medical staff person administers a lethal
dose of medication with the intention of killing the patient.
2) Assisted suicide
occurs when a doctor or medical staff person prescribes a lethal
amount of medication with the intent of helping a person commit
suicide. The patient then takes the dose or turns the switch. In
both active euthanasia and assisted suicide, death is induced before
Facing our own deaths
The discussions that are going on in
our society about physician-assisted suicide represent, in part,
our anticipation and fear of the circumstances of our own deaths.
What we may fear first of all is being given too much technology—dying
not at peace but in a wild frenzy of efforts to give us a little
more time to live. Second, we may fear that, despite all the marvelous
successes of medicine and technology, they will not be able to help
us recover our health but merely entrap us in the dying process
longer than we can endure.
To help guide the decisions that we may
face about medical treatments for ourselves or for others and to
give us some control in the dying process, the Church draws a distinction
between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving
life. When we use these terms, we often focus on the level of sophistication
of the technologies that are at our disposal to maintain human life.
Unfortunately, trying to categorize treatments this way reduces
the distinction to the difference between customary and unusual
To avoid this misunderstanding, the Church
has recently used the terms of proportionate and disproportionate
means of treatment. This more appropriate terminology aims to show
that the use of technology is at the service of the total well-being
of the person. Treatments cannot be evaluated without reference
to the patient receiving them.
As stewards of life, we are obligated
to use only proportionate means of treatment to maintain life; they
are those means that offer a reasonable hope of benefit and do not
involve an excessive burden.
We are not obligated to use disproportionate
means to maintain life; they are those means that do not offer us
a reasonable hope of benefit or impose on us an excessive burden.
To forgo disproportionate means of treatment is not the same as
suicide or euthanasia; rather, it signals the acceptance of the
inevitability of death as part of human life.
With these distinctions, the Church helps
guide us in making a prudential treatment decision. In assessing
the burdens and benefits of the medical options that are available
to us, we should inquire whether the treatment offers any hope for
recovery, whether the procedure may be painful or dangerous, or
whether the treatment will impose on us or on others considerable
hardships, such as when it may be excessively expensive.
Help in dying
Facing death can be a time of isolation,
anguish and despair; it can also be a time of extraordinary spiritual
growth and fulfillment. Each of us will long for the saving touch
of Christ through the sacraments. The Church offers us in our infirmity
the comforting grace of the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist
as the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world
to the Father (Jn 13:1). This ancient practice of receiving the
Eucharist near the time of death is known as Viaticum, which literally
means "food for the journey."
Each of us, too, will long for the warmth
of a human touch in the form of being accompanied through the final
mystery of life. None of us wants to die deserted and isolated from
human love. When faced with death, a person should be given an opportunity
to say good-bye to family and friends.
As fearful as it might be, we should
be willing to take the risk to walk selflessly with those who experience
in their illness the limitations and fragility of the human condition.
We must keep company with the dying in order to affirm their dignity
in every phase of life. No amount of medical intervention can replace
the compassion and love that the person needs and deserves in the
hour of death.
This deep love for the sick and dying
has given rise to a long and outstanding history of charity. All
of us in the Church can be particularly grateful to the many women
religious, doctors, medical staffs and pastoral-care ministers who,
through their leadership in the health-care ministry, present an
eloquent example of Christ—s compassion toward the sick.
Managing pain effectively
The contemporary discussion in which
we are involved also goes to the heart of the purpose of the medical
profession. Physicians and other caregivers have the obligation
to maintain life and to relieve pain. These two duties, however,
may come into conflict when caring for someone who is dying.
Proponents of physician-assisted suicide
at times argue that their initiatives are the only way to protect
the dying from severe and intractable pain. It is true, too, that
public opinion polls reveal that many people who favor assisted
suicide do so because they do not want to endure a physically painful
death. Quite understandably, people want to make the last steps
in life without pain.
It is important to point out that the
effective treatment of pain guarantees that no one will suffer a
painful death. Health-care providers must make every effort to ensure
that the available medications to eliminate or control pain are
provided to a patient.
From a moral perspective, a physician
may responsibly administer medications to control or alleviate pain
even when doing so may hasten death. The physician—s intention is
not to kill the patient but to relieve pain effectively with the
Much of the debate in this matter fails
to distinguish between pain and suffering. The distinction is far
more than academic for a person of faith. Pain most frequently refers
to the physical experience of discomfort.
Suffering is more profound than the endurance
of physical pain. It may well be present even in the absence of
pain. Suffering can also be an expression of one—s faith and love.
Suffering endured out of love is redemptive. Our suffering, from
apostolic times, has also been a way that each one of us identifies
with and shares in the salvific work of Christ himself (Col 1:24
and 1 Pt 4:13).
Church and society
As a people of faith, we have an important
role in the public discussion about physician-assisted suicide.
In this public conversation our position must not only be stated
clearly and confidently, but our opposition to assisted suicide
must be backed up with compassionate action.
Our opposition to physician-assisted
suicide is not to hinder freedom but to protect the right to die
with human and Christian dignity. Between the two extremes of
active euthanasia or assisted suicide and the use of every possible
means to prolong life at all costs, the Church offers a third alternative
of action that can help to guide the public discussion.
The Church recognizes a person—s right
to refuse disproportionate medical treatment. What we must safeguard
in our society is that a person—s informed treatment decisions are
The Church also recognizes the need for
the proper management of pain. In this regard, we must ensure in
the clinical setting that a person need not seek death in order
to escape pain.
Finally, the Church recognizes the importance
of the interpersonal aspects of human suffering and death. As members
of the Church, we offer to the sick and dying our service of charity
as a resplendent sign that "God has visited his people" (Lk 7:16).
It will be our compassion toward the
sick and dying that will ultimately make our teaching on assisted
suicide effective and credible enough to shape and guide the public
In the midst of the final looming controversy
over his own fate, Jesus uttered the words of faith that continue
to inspire and to guide the Church—s teaching in this mystery of
Christian death: "This is why the Father loves me, because I lay
down my life in order to take it up again" (Jn 10:17).