July 22, 2011


Suicide is not dignified death

Can anything indicate more clearly that our society has a culture of death than the results of the Gallup Poll that found that 45 percent of Americans believe that doctor-assisted suicide is morally acceptable? Forty-eight percent said that it is morally wrong.

That poll, which we reported in our June 10 issue of The Criterion, did have some good news: the majority of Americans—51 percent—believe that abortion is morally wrong, and only 39 percent believe that it is morally acceptable. But other life issues didn’t fare as well. Sixty-two percent accept embryonic stem-cell research, and 65 percent approve the death penalty—further evidence of our culture of death.

This week, though, we are concentrating on physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is sufficiently alarmed by its growing acceptance that they approved a statement called “To Live Each Day with Dignity” during their meeting on June 16 in Seattle, Wash. We reported on that statement in our June 24 issue.

Those who promote physician-assisted suicide try to make it appealing. They use terms like “death with dignity” to convince people that they should have the right to control when and how they are to die. However, there also seems to be a campaign to convince elderly people and those with a serious illness that they have a duty to die.

Suicide, though, is not a dignified death. It contradicts our natural inclination to preserve our life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God” (#2281).

However, the Church also recognizes that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC, #2281).

Suicide has always existed. The Bible tells us that King Saul committed suicide after he was severely wounded in battle, and, of course, Judas committed suicide. However, most people consider suicide to be a terrible tragedy. We must try to prevent it, not encourage it.

To some extent, progress in medical practice has been responsible for an increase in the number of suicides. Patients who would have died quickly from their sickness in earlier times are now kept alive longer.

Often, though, they don’t want to be kept alive, especially when it is expensive to do so. It adds to patients’ suffering if they are made to think that others see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution because of mounting medical bills.

Compassion and Choices is the organization leading the campaign for physician-assisted suicide. (It used to be called the Hemlock Society.) We deny that it is compassionate to help people commit suicide or that physician-assisted suicide enhances choices.

Many people who take their own lives suffer from a mental illness, often clinical depression, rather than from free choice. They need help to be freed from suicidal thoughts, not be encouraged to kill themselves.

Even apparently free choices may be unduly influenced by others. If those who are supposed to be caring for them give the impression that the choice to live is selfish or irrational, or a needless burden on others, they feel that they don’t have a choice.

Leaders of the “aid in dying” movement have voiced support for ending the lives of people who never asked for death, whose lives are seen as meaningless or as a costly burden on society.

Rather than encouraging suicide, we must emphasize the importance of palliative care—making the patient as comfortable as possible through pain medications. Effective palliative care can enhance the quality of a person’s life while he or she is waiting for death.

The bishops’ statement says, “Effective palliative care also allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves. No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless.”

The statement also says, “A choice to take one’s life is a supreme contradiction of freedom, a choice to eliminate all choices.”

—John F. Fink

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