People are living longer. At the same time, many people face great suffering from illness (physical and mental) and aging. Seeing other people dying or facing death themselves has led many people to argue for the right to die at the time of their choosing. Often death is caused by the use of lethal drugs obtained through a doctor. The term used by many for this is physician assisted suicide.
There are many ethical questions that come up. Does a person ever have a right to choose to end their life? Under what conditions? Do they need to do it themselves or can someone do it for them? Would you allow it under at any time or only for those who are dying?
Some say each individual person should have the freedom to choose when to die. The problem with such a “freedom” is that we can wonder if a person truly chooses death as a “free choice” or because they feel they have to for various reasons such as not burdening their family with the costs of medical care if they continue to live. They may choose to die not out of freedom but rather out of fear; fear of how they might suffer if they continue to live. And what about the freedom of someone to make the choice who suffers from mental illness? Can they make a rational choice or does their mental illness cloud their freedom? What about the freedom of someone who can either not make the decision for themselves or are unable to express their own desire?
The Catholic Church makes an important distinction for those who are dying. Life is a gift from God and we should never reject the gift (even when it doesn’t seem like a gift). Thus, the teaching of the Catholic Church is clear that we should never act in a way to cause a death. For example, the use of drugs that will be the direct cause of death is never permissible.
However, the Catholic Church is also clear that we can make a decision to “let nature take its course.” When a person is dying, they do not need to continue treatment when there is little or no hope of recovery.
These are very complicated issues and cannot be adequately dwelt with here. I write today to help people realize what the church’s position truly is on the “right to die.” Each of us may face such decisions for ourselves or others in our lifetime. The best time to begin to understand the Church’s teaching on euthanasia is not when we are facing such a grave decision but before we ever become sick.
In recognition of the importance of this issue, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) today (June 16, 2011) approved a statement called “To Live Each Day With Dignity: A Statement on Physican Assisted Suicide.” I encourage you to take a look at it (it is just seven pages) and to check out some other resources from the Catholic Church on the topic.
For further reading you might also wish to check out some of the following articles on http://www.renewaloffaith.org.
- “Do We Listen to Our Conscience?”
- “The Ethics of Medical Research”
- “Why the Catholic Church is Concerned With Health Care”