The Catholic Church's teaching on assisted suicide

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Variations of Death with Dignity Laws or End of Life Options Acts have been enacted by eight legislatures throughout the country: California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. This year, 23 more legislatures will consider such laws. 

The Virginia legislature now is seeking public input before the legislative session in 2019. The simple matter is that these laws legalize a physician to help another person who is terminally ill commit suicide.

“Physician assisted suicide” (PAS) is different from euthanasia. In cases of euthanasia, a second party commits "an action or omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated" (Declaration on Euthanasia) for another person. In the laws in question, PAS is defined as “medical aid in dying” whereby a second party, i.e. a physician, provides the means by which a terminally ill, mentally capable adult self-administers medication to end life. While the laws attempt to distinguish “medical aid in dying” from the illegal acts of suicide or euthanasia (like the physician administering a lethal injection), the actions are the same: the patient commits suicide with a means (drugs, whether pill form or injection) provided by the physician. 

High emotions surround the debate on this issue. The media and other organizations highlight the person who is suffering from a slow, debilitating, excruciating death. The purpose is to then decide this issue on emotion and circumstances: Why can’t this person end this pain and suffering? Why should this person be a burden on the family? Why shouldn’t this person die with dignity rather than waste away?

Rather than decide issues by emotion and circumstances, we must use faith and reason to examine the objective action — a person willfully killing himself with the help of a physician who is trained to heal and support life.

So how do we as Christians respond? First, both the dignity of each individual person and the gift of life are sacred. We respect the sacredness of the continuum of life from conception until death. Each person has been willed by God, and each person has a purpose — no matter what the particular circumstances of the present moment. We have a vision not only for life here and now on this planet and in this time frame, but also for eternal life, hopefully with Almighty God in Heaven. Therefore, each person is bound to lead his life in accord with God's plan and with openness to His will, looking to life's fulfillment in Heaven. 

Rather than looking at the end of a physical life without hope, we have hope: death is only a passing to the fullness of life with Our Lord. As St. Paul said, we “by his grace have become heirs, in hope of eternal life” (Ti 3:7). 

Second, although Our Lord suffered a slow, debilitating, excruciating death, we see this as the greatest act of redemptive love. Therefore, our own pain and suffering does not lessen our dignity, just as it did not lessen Our Lord’s dignity. Our own pain and suffering is not worthless, but is redemptive when united with Our Lord. Each of us has been baptized into Christ's passion, death and resurrection. We all share in Our Lord's cross, and that at times may be very painful. This suffering, however, especially at the last moments of one's life, must be seen as a sharing in Our Lord's sufferings. By uniting our suffering with Our Lord's, we expiate the hurt caused by our own sins and help to expiate the sins of others, just as some of the early martyrs did who offered their sufferings for sinners. Sometimes, such suffering finally heals the wounds that have divided families. Our Lord offers tremendous graces to those who suffer and those who suffer with them. 

Third, when we love, can a dying person really be an unbearable burden on the family? The family members who care for the dying relative share in suffering. They support the person with love, showing that the dying relative has dignity, is loved, is wanted, and will be cared for until death. Rather than cut short precious time that can be spent together in this life, they support each other in life and love. I do not know a person who has lost a beloved spouse, parent, or child who would not say, “If only I could have had more time with that person.”

These laws law set a dangerous precedent. First, physicians are entrusted to promote the health and well-being of those in their care; with PAS, they now formally are cooperating with the evil of taking of a person’s life. Second, since terminally ill people have the legal right to end their lives, when will insurance carriers pressure such individuals do so rather than carry on medical care or treatments? Third, while most laws stipulate that a person must be “mentally capable” and within six months of death, to end one’s own life is an act without hope, motivated by depression and anxiety rather than “mental capability.”

The overwhelming circumstances of a moment can be endured and conquered by knowing the love of Jesus and the family members who care. Therefore, we must be witnesses of the hope and love and Our Savior, Jesus Christ. As St. Paul said, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, now has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls and episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018