I am not sure the question of assisted suicide/euthanasia receives the attention it deserves. Perhaps this is because of the heart-wrenching pastoral situations which it addresses and which are familiar to many of us. Still, it raises a set of issues as basic as any can be in a society. They go to the core of what we think a human being is. They include the following: what about the doctor’s Hippocratic oath to do no harm? Even if Christians agree about an ethic of life, what about the secular realm including those who do not share our belief? And isn’t a society judged by its care for the most vulnerable? This includes the elderly who may be made to feel the burden of expending family resources at the end of their lives, as well as the seriously depressed, the demented, the cognitively impaired, etc. At just this point don’t we show with our actions what we think a human being really is? Such people, the ‘least of these my brothers and sisters,’ may be canaries in the mineshaft who tell us what kind of society we are coming to be. The voice of the Church will be crucial in all these questions.
My immediate goal is simply to open up this question for our consideration thoughtfully, theologically and prayerfully. As with all moral questions, we need to be clear about first principles and then honest and serious about conundra, which arise. The first principle is that God is indeed the Lord of life and death, and that moral life is to be lived out within that boundary. This initial clarity still leaves subsequent questions. For example, Catholics have a concept of ‘double effect,’ according to which an action might be moral whose primary intention is good, though it may have a different secondary effect. The doctor gives a narcotic to alleviate pain, though the doctor knows it may also shorten the patient’s life.
These issues cannot be resolved in a blog! Still, I would like to offer here a footnote and a worry. As to the first, Gilbert Meilaender in his Bioethics offers what he calls an ‘ethic of care.’ He places this as the mean between excessive intervention through machines to prolong life on the one hand, and action to end life on the other. Obviously this requires judgment as to where the mean is, which opens new questions. Still the concept is helpful.
And the worry? We need to be realistic about fallen human nature. Though at the beginning assisted suicide erects lots of barriers and conditions, the record in Europe shows that these do not last long - there is indeed a slope, and it is slippery. Everyone is terminal sooner or later. And if depression is included as a sufficient ‘grievous condition,’ you can imagine where that brings one quickly. In Belgium every single request for death was accepted in the first years of their liberalized law - there was clearly a preferential option for death.
Let us take the debate as a backdrop against which the Gospel about life and new life can more clearly be heard.