Euthanasia and assisted suicide are contrary to Catholic teaching as they are an affront to human dignity. The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the human person and the Gospel of Life are a single and indivisible Gospel. The second Vatican Council declared “euthanasia and wilful suicide” are “offences against life itself’ which “poison civilisation”; they ‘debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honour of the Creator.” In “The Gospel of Life” encyclical Pope John Paul II confirms that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.
On reflecting on the euthanasia question we need to define what some terms mean. Three words or phrases that are used often are physician assisted suicide and palliative care.
There is often confusion over what constitutes euthanasia. Withholding futile treatment is not euthanasia. Withdrawing futile treatment is not euthanasia. “Terminal sedation” which is the use of sedative medication to relieve intolerable suffering in the last days of life is not euthanasia.
Euthanasia is defined as a doctor intentionally killing a person by the administration of drugs, at that person’s voluntary and competent request.
Physician assisted suicide is a doctor helping a person to commit suicide by providing drugs for self administration, at that person’s voluntary and competent request.
Palliative care which is practiced by the hospice movement and others is an approach that involves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life threatening illness through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.
The Gospel of Life tells us that even when not motivated by the selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a “false mercy” and indeed a disturbing perversion of mercy. True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear. Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if it is carried out by those, like relatives, who are supposed to treat a family member with love, or by those, such as doctors, who by virtue of their specific profession are supposed to care for the sick person even in the most painful terminal stages. The choice of euthanasia becomes more serious when it takes the form of murder committed by others on a person who has in no way requested it or has never consented to it. The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people such as physicians or legislators arrogate the power to themselves to decide who ought to live and who ought to die.
Once again we find ourselves before the temptation of Eden to become like God “who knows good and evil.” (cf Gen 3:5) God alone has power over life and death. He only exercises this power in accordance with a plan of wisdom and love. When man usurps this power, being enslaved by a foolish way of thinking, he inevitably uses it for injustice and death. Thus the life of a person who is weak is put into the hands of one who is strong; in society the sense of injustice is lost, and mutual trust, the basis of every authentic interpersonal relationship, is undermined at its root.
There are very real dangers to society with the legalisation of assisted suicide. This is evidenced by the fact that advocates for assisted suicide consistently highlight the need for clear guidelines to prevent potential abuse. The Netherlands and Oregon in the USA are places which have legislated to allow these practices. In a review of these places which the fact of assisting in principle has inevitably led to abuse of apparently strict criteria in practice. In the Netherlands reports show that people are euthanised without their consent despite these criteria. Reports indicate up to 1 in 5 cases of assisted suicide occurred without the patient’s explicit request. Assisted suicide or euthanasia is frequently promoted as giving patients more choice in dying but the Netherlands experience has shown it has given doctors even more power. The practice of assisted suicide has blocked what can be termed basic palliative care and led to the under
development of the hospice movement in the Netherlands. While there has been considerable development of palliative medicine in recent decades these resources are simply not available in any coherent manner in the Netherlands. The practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the Netherlands illustrated the logical inconsistencies involved in allowing euthanasia in practice. The Netherlands is frequently cited as an example of what would happen with strict guidelines. This is not born out in reality. It is naïve to enact legislation in New Zealand with similar “safeguards” and to think that our experience of assisted suicide would be different.
In the hospice or palliative care movement, people are given choices to take part in their own care. It is part of giving them dignity — parts of their life are out of control and becoming more so. They are affirmed in what they can do. The hospice movement both here and world wide, is against euthanasia — so that is one choice they do not give people. It appears that when a good hospice service is available and is utilised then the demand for euthanasia declines. Legitimate concerns expressed by doctors include good people under pressure accepting voluntary euthanasia and bad people using it for their own ends. It will also lead to a growing mistrust of doctors’ and nurses’ good intentions. Energy should be put into hospice services, which encourage people to find a positive phase in their dying.