Over the last few decades there has been a growing discussion of the ethics of euthanasia (physicians administering lethal drugs) and assisted suicide (physicians making lethal drugs available). In the vast literature supporting some form of assisted death, there are common themes.
- It is a way for dying patients to choose death over a life filled with physical and emotional suffering.
- Human beings have a right to determine how they live their lives, including how and when they die and others should respect this right.
- Physicians should have compassion for their suffering patients and not abandon them as they approach death, but should assist them in their desire to die.
- Since it is ethically legitimate to remove dying patients from a life support machine causing death (passive euthanasia), providing drugs (active euthanasia) to accomplish the same goal should also be ethically legitimate.
- Hastening death can be an act of charity toward loved ones so their burdens of care and financial support are reduced or limited.
- Controlling the time of death can provide time for good-byes to loved ones and can facilitate the donation of organs.
Over the last century Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has gradually developed a more sophisticated position against euthanasia, culminating in the 2020 Vatican letter on end-of-life issues, appropriately titled “The Good Samaritan.” It reaffirms the Church’s traditional opposition to euthanasia as a “crime against humanity,” “a grave violation of the Law of God,” and “an intrinsically evil act.” It is important to note that the letter immediately adds that individuals suffering from “anguish and despair” may make an error of judgment and in good faith request euthanasia without any personal guilt. It goes on to base its definitive prohibition of assisted dying on the natural law, known by reason and on God’s commandment; “Thou shall not kill.” Furthermore, Christ’s command to love our neighbor, exemplified in the Good Samaritan parable, prompts us to practice an “ethic of care” for the dying by accompanying them on the final part of their earthly journey and by casting on them a “contemplative gaze” that recognizes their essential dignity and fragile vulnerability. As Christians who believe earthly death is a passage to eternal life, we have an obligation to do our part to support the dying with care and love so they can persevere in the final, definitive, free act of surrendering totally to the living God.
The Vatican letter explicitly rejects various arguments that assisted death is a legitimate response to human suffering. For instance, it fails to recognize that human life is “a value in itself.” As Christians, we recall that Jesus Christ freely accepted the horrible physical and emotional suffering of death on the cross and that God raised him to a new glorified life. For believers, this means unavoidable suffering of all types can be meaningful and redemptive, when endured with hope and trust in God.
It also rejects the claim that euthanasia is a legitimate compassionate response to the suffering of terminally ill patients, insisting that true compassion “consists not in causing death, but in embracing the sick” and “offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate their suffering.”
The letter identifies questionable cultural trends that support assisted death, including an individualism that emphasizes personal fulfillment over serving the common good and freedom from constraints over cultivating mutual relationships. A culture that celebrates this kind of individualism often leaves a dying person without the warm personal love and support needed as death approaches. CST teaches that we are social creatures who find fulfillment in loving relationships with persons who can be Good Samaritans for us on the final stages of our earthly journey.
The Vatican document has much more say on aggressive medical treatment of the dying and on public policy favoring assisted dying. More on that in subsequent meditations.
Does CST support or challenge my personal outlook on euthanasia?