By: Monica Kao
It’s difficult to imagine any circumstances in which it would be morally permissible to kill another human being–most religions, governments and social institutions have expressed beliefs asserting that each individual has the right to life, and the Catholic Church has certainly been no exception. However, new advances in technology and medicine have improved the safety of many medical procedures and have enabled physicians to prolong life longer than was possible in the past, and the implications of assisted suicide are raising new questions about the sanctity of life and whether it is just or unjust to choose life above all other considerations.
Proponents of the ‘sanctity of life’ argument hold that assisted suicide and related practices are immoral under all circumstances, oftentimes citing Catholic social teaching to support their views. In Catholic tradition, all humans have been made in the image of God; as a result, each life is sacred and should be revered for its inherent worth. To unnaturally or prematurely terminate a life is to deny its worth and to violate God’s will, and such practices should never be allowed, let alone be legalized. Opponents of assisted suicide also cite what is known as the ‘slippery slope’ argument against the legalization of assisted suicide–it is well-known that life-sustaining procedures (such as those requiring the use of respirators and feeding tubes) are costly and all too often place undue pressure on patients and their families. Many raise fears that patients might eventually be coerced into choosing suicide so as to avoid being a financial burden upon their families, or that patients who are incapable of making the decisions themselves could be killed against their will. Those patients whose families cannot afford to maintain life-sustaining treatments might be disproportionately affected, and in a way that would cost them their lives. Catholic social teaching maintains that everyone has a responsibility to protect and defend each person’s fundamental right to life, and especially the rights belonging to the most vulnerable. Catholic principles would also maintain that one of the functions of government is to protect human rights and to assist its citizens in fulfilling their duties to society; as a result, economic and social institutions should have restrictions in place to protect the sanctity of life above all else.
One would be hard-pressed to find flaws within the ‘sanctity of life’ argument–respecting and defending the right to life seems to be the obvious “moral” choice. However, there are stories of patients like Tony Nicklinson (Locked-in syndrome man Nicklinson wants the right to die) that prove that the debate surrounding the moral permissibility and legalization of assisted suicide is as complex as it is controversial. Requests for assisted suicide are almost always heard from patients with terminal and degenerative conditions, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), advanced cancer and AIDS. The onset and progression of these incapacitating conditions can be extremely frightening to the victims and their families—in the case of ALS, symptoms begin with muscle twitching, weakness and atrophy and eventually progress until the patient is robbed of his/her ability to walk, stand, use their limbs, chew, and swallow, making the patient completely dependent upon others. In the final stages, weakening of the respiratory muscles prevent patients from breathing without a ventilator. As with Tony’s case, many of the requests for assisted suicide arise from a fear of imminent suffering and/or excruciating pain, loss of control, fear of becoming a burden to one’s family and caregivers, and loss of dignity. Interestingly enough, some of the ‘quality of life’ arguments made by proponents of assisted suicide are also informed by Catholic social teaching. According to its principles, the dignity of each person should be the basis for the organization of society, and all of the aspects from which it is composed–economics, politics, science, law–should reflect a commitment to protect human dignity. With dwindling abilities to contribute and to be productive members of society, to interact with loved ones, to laugh, to speak, and to act in any way that might influence their own lives, many patients argue that the quality of life and the preservation of dignity is more important than the preservation of life for the sake of life itself. In forcing them to remain dependent upon caregivers and upon machines, to live what could only be called a shadow of the life that they used to lead, to deny them the dignity to live and die as they choose–we discover that perhaps the immorality lies not in ending a life, but in denying the right to die.
The moral permissibility of assisted suicide is arguably one of the most fascinating debates that our nation faces today–the thing that makes it so interesting, I think, is the fact that none of us have any way of knowing with certainty whether or not we will be affected by its legalization, and in what capacity. Will you be the one shouldering the cost to keep a loved one alive? Will your federal dollars be paying to keep a stranger alive…indefinitely? Will you be the one condemned to a life of deteriorating health and increasing dependence, and if you are, will you fight for the gift of life or will you choose to die with dignity? What matters most, the sanctity of life or the quality of life, and under what circumstances? The issue of assisted suicide may be as close to a Rawlsian veil of ignorance as any of us will ever get, so then the question is asked–what does justice demand from us as we attempt to achieve the highest attainable standard of health for everyone?