They will die anyway. It will put them out of their misery. I wouldn’t want to live like that. These are common phrases in defense of physician-assisted suicide. The typical justification for a doctor helping a patient kill himself is that a continued existence would be miserable and full of suffering.
One frequently hears, “We treat our animals better than we do our fellow human beings” or “We are willing to watch our mother writhe in pain, and yet we don’t think twice about putting down our suffering cat.”
These are serious misunderstandings of Christ’s mandate that we love one another as he loves us. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount includes a series of rather difficult moral injunctions. He says, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Mt 5:41). This injunction is filling out what Christ himself says is the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). What would this love look like to those who are approaching death and experiencing the suffering that characterizes the dying process?
It is important to keep in mind that persons who are dying often do suffer — and some horribly. We all desire for people to die in peace. This is what compassionate care demands. But it is equally important to note that we cannot eliminate the pain by getting rid of the one experiencing the pain. Those who espouse assisted suicide are clearly opting to get rid of suffering by ending the life of the sufferer. As Catholics, we know there is another way that Christ himself charted out.
To return to St. Matthew, what does it mean to “walk with a friend for another two miles”? You first walk with the friend one mile to accommodate what they have asked. You then go with them another two, totaling three miles. Saint Augustine entertains the idea that in walking for double what is asked for, one is completing love. Augustine suggests that the number three in Scripture indicates perfection. By doing double what the person has asked, we perfect love.
This is the attitude we should take in our care for the dying. Our love is complete only in doing that which exceeds what they have asked for. It is typical that for many moral “dilemmas,” the hardest route is usually the one which accords with love. Compassionate care for the dying, ministry to the family and simply being present with the patient, “walking with her double what she has asked,” respects the human dignity of the dying and constitutes the perfection of our love. When we walk with the dying, we take away loneliness and spiritual suffering and give witness, by our very actions, to the resurrection. For if we lead lives transfigured by grace, we give hope for the resurrection as well.
The “arguments” in favor of physician-assisted suicide are that it allows the patient to end his or her suffering. Since ending one’s suffering is seen as a good thing, assisted suicide is proposed as a good thing. This style of argument is woefully inadequate: It proposes that human suffering has no value, and it wrongly presumes that one has the right to end one’s own life.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful letter to the Church called Salvifici Doloris (On the Meaning of Human Suffering) in which he identifies a “supernatural” quality to human suffering by rooting it in the divine mystery of the redemption of the world.
He states that “suffering seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself.”
How can human suffering have a transcendent dimension? Because in suffering we are united most closely with the Man of Sorrows, Jesus Christ. And as St. Paul stated of his own suffering: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
No one wants to see a loved one suffer, but with the eyes of faith one can see, not an absence of God’s love, but his love at its most profound and mysterious level. To state that suffering is an evil to be destroyed by taking the life of the one suffering is to rob a person of their most intimate moments with our Lord as he prepares them to join him in eternity. To take one’s own life or the life of another is to reject God’s sovereignty over life and to refuse his love, which we are assured of to the very end of our lives.
Stephen Napier is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.