Death Without Dignity: A Catholic Rejection

“Oh, by the way, if I get a terminal disease, I want to move to Washington State to die,” Emily Gilmore, the matriarch of the titular clan in the massively popular Gilmore Girls revival that debuted last week on Netflix, mentions flippantly to her daughter. “It costs a fortune,” Emily says. “So in the safe there’s an envelope labeled ‘body shipping cash’. I could also go to Vermont, but we vacationed there once and it it was terrible,” she continues, shuddering at the memory of all the “squirrels.” And thus ceases the brief airtime that the topic of physician- assisted suicide (PAS) receives in one of the most highly anticipated television events of the year. Unrelated to the rest of the plot, PAS is trotted out for less than thirty seconds merely for comedic purpose.

When physician-assisted suicide isn’t being utilized for laughs on Gilmore Girls, it’s spoken of as the “dignified” end-of-life option, as the means of claiming for oneself dignity—as if life wasn’t inherently dignified.  This so-called “dignity,” however, is a perverse distortion of dignity itself.  To listen to the assisted suicide lobby, this false dignity seems to be based in their conception of freedom and compassion—both of which are themselves distorted.

PAS is heralded for the “freedom” that it bestows upon its victims—freedom from pain, freedom from suffering.  But this, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement on PAS, is a “narrow and distorted notion of freedom.”  The choice to take one’s own life, in eliminating all future choices, is “a supreme contradiction of freedom.”  Additionally, people suffering from suicidal thoughts—people who see relief only in death—need to be freed from such thoughts through counseling, support, and medication if necessary, not from their lives themselves.  Offering them lethal drugs is not providing them with freedom but actually the worst—and most heartbreaking—version of neglect.

The notion that PAS is compassionate is also warped.  It represents a complete bastardization of compassion itself—at least the way in which the Church imagines it. Pope Francis reminded us of the true meaning of compassion in a homily in April: “Compassion means ‘suffer with’,” he said.  “[C]ompassion, love, is not a vague sentiment, but means taking care of the other”.  PAS can be understood to do the exact opposite: Allowing another to end his or her life is not a form of sharing another’s pain, nor a means of taking care of the sufferer.  Similarly, Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical on life Evangelium Vitae that assisted suicide “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.”  He calls for “the way of love and true mercy” as an alternative.

The US Bishops, too, call upon Catholics to build “a world where love is stronger than death”: “Catholics should be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has the right to live with dignity through every day of our lives,” they wrote.  While the Bishops here call for Catholics to reject physician-assisted suicide, particularly in consideration of the ways in which it is a gross affront to dignity, this perspective and manifesto applies not only to Catholics but to all people of good faith who value human life and dignity.  The prospects of building this world, however, are becoming ever the more bleak, at least as far as PAS is concerned.  In America, while over 140 legislative proposals have been lobbied in 27 states over the past two decades or so, the vast majority have been denied—but the tide appears to be turning.  Gallup reported in 2015, for instance, that 68% of Americans now support access to physician-assisted suicide, an increase of twenty points over the past two years.  Millennials, in particular, tend to support the act: over four-fifths of our generation say they think it should be be legal.  Moreover, in the past year, California has enacted a statute to provide for PAS, Coloradans voted to legalize it in November, and the DC City Council approved it last month as well.

Now, more urgently than ever, we must decide to be a society that chooses love over death.

Julia Greenwood

COL ’19

RTL Treasurer

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