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BY David Liptak
The term “physician-assisted suicide” is really an absurd description, since collaborating in the act of suicide contradicts a physician's vocation and, in effect, represents a throwback to the dark ages of crude and superstitious paganism. Isn't this why the American Medical Association opposes the practice?
That the direct taking of one's own life cannot be justified as reasonable was evident to philosophers of ancient Greece where much of the great adventure of the Western mind commenced.
Socrates, one of the most original thinkers of all times, when asked why he did not try to foil the execution of a manifestly unjust death sentence upon him by suicide, explained that he did not own himself; on the contrary he was God's. Hence he had only limited power over what he might actually do.
Socrates viewed life as a gift. The argument that suicide might be interpreted as giving back the gift, he saw as specious—indeed, without merit—since even the pagans saw the ultimate goal of life as reaching beyond the present life, and that suicide does not lead to nothingness, but rather to judgment.
The very notion of gift, after all, presumes a giver. It doesn't take much thought to realize that life is not a self-gift, or, in an informal way, to come to the conclusion that one cannot give what one does not have. Life is obviously derivative, to anyone who applies his or her intellect to the subject.
Albert Camus, the French existentialist who was awarded the Nobel Prize and who was turning increasingly toward God in his philosophical discussions, once said that the very first philosophical question is: “Should I or should I not commit suicide?” But, as philosopher Ralph McInerny explains, Camus realized that even to discuss this question is to answer it in the negative. Camus was saying that knowing the right answer is more important than taking one's own life. In other words, thinking—the capacity to discover truth and to make judgments—is good and as such is not to be extinguished—which of course is what suicide would do.
To put all this another way: anything that can be perceived by me as a good to be deserved presupposes my existence once it is acquired. McInerny states: “Thus, my ceasing to be cannot be chosen as a good. Ceasing to be cannot be any good.”
Camus's question was phrased in immortal language by Shakespeare, especially in Hamlet's immortal soliloquy: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
Regardless of how Hamlet and this speech are interpreted, it cannot be doubted that Shakespeare was speaking about self-destruction. Mark the lines:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coiI
Must give us pause
For who would bear the whips and scorns or time…
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?”
In another speech Hamlet plays on the same theme when he laments:
“[T]hat the Almighty had not fix'd
His cannon 'gainst self-slaughter.”
The direct taking of one's own life is, simply stated, contrary to the moral law written by the Creator in each one's own heart. For a physician to participate (or to collaborate) in self destruction is repugnant to reason by virtue of a physician's role as healer, a role which he has assumed by means of an oath, which, despite “revisionist” theories, remains essentially the same in this regard as it was in the age of the Greek Hippocrates. Physicians are called to safeguard and to save, not to destroy, human life.
Besides, do we not have data to the effect that the terminally ill who request doctor-assisted suicide are struggling with depression or guilt or anger or the search for meaning? Isn't the solution to help them face these challenges, not dispatch them? Moreover, isn't the concept of redemptive suffering a biblical truth? As some of the world's greatest contemporary philosophers have pointed out—including Pope John Paul II—dehumanizing acts toward others only dehumanize those who perform them. Euthanasia in any mode destroys the moral vision of the perpetrator.
Finally, palliative care today has become sophisticated. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and others have pointed out, there is so much that can be done today in the area of pain control. And hospice care, ensuring natural death with dignity, is becoming available to more and more.
Father David Liptak is censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford, and teaches bioethics at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.