It used to be that when someone asked, "How much are you worth?" the questioner was curious about your wealth. Today, that inquiry has darkened into something more sinister. "How much are you worth?" could concern your health and continued value to society

This shift is evidenced around the world by an increasing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia. In Europe, three nations officially allow assisted suicide or euthanasia. Belgium just passed a bill to remove age restrictions, so children may now request euthanasia. The law stipulates that these youngsters must be conscious and understand what they are asking. Doctors and psychologists consult with the child, and the parents must give permission. At the moment, this "right to die" is limited to children who are terminally ill and expected to die within six months. Of course, a natural question arises: Do the children really want to die or do they actually just want to have their pain alleviated?

In the U.S., five states already permit assisted suicide for adults. Supporters trumpet the so-called "right to die" as a victory for personal autonomy. As Christians, we hold that such actions stand in stark contrast to the moral law and the teaching of Scripture. Everyone, Christian or no, must consider the reality that so-called "personal autonomy" is actually nothing more than a euphemistic disguise for the the loss of individual freedom.

In shedding the vestiges of Judeo-Christian beliefs, as well as the intentions of the Founding Fathers of the United States, many who support assisted suicide and euthanasia view their actions as compassionate responses to a cry for help. In their misguided way, they evidence a veneer of compassion, coupled with deceptive slogans that supplant the objective "sacredness of every life" with the inherently subjective "quality of life."

"Death with dignity" is another noble-sounding euphemism designed to hide an ugly reality. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are blatant signs of indifference, not compassion. Compassion means "to suffer with." But "death with dignity" advocates are so fearful of suffering and ignorant of any possible meaning therein that they will stop at nothing — even killing — to end it. Why would any rational adult — or child — request or agree to assisted suicide or euthanasia? "Only recently has the medical profession begun to appreciate that unrelieved pain can … induce depression," asserted Richard Doerflinger and Carlos Gomez, M.D., in their article "Killing the Pain Not the Patient: Palliative Care vs. Assisted Suicide." However, when patients receive proper medication to control pain and to alleviate depression, they often reverse their initial intention and experience the desire to continue to live. The moral response to suffering — whether psychological or physical — is to relieve it, not to kill the patient. And our ability to alleviate pain has advanced remarkably.

To Christians, true compassion recognizes Jesus as present in the patient and, therefore, deserving of respect, with the dignity of death coming at life’s natural end. It unites the suffering of the person with Jesus’ identification as the "Man of Sorrows" in Isaiah 53 and in the Gospel of St. Mark.

While it might bewilder the spokesmen for induced death that a person with a terminal illness might choose to live, another tactic focuses on family exhaustion. When questioned, many people insist that they do not wish to become a burden to their loved ones. How much more would a young child be susceptible to a parent’s demeanor and to subtle suggestions of doctors?

Herbert Hendin, M.D., in his paper "The Slippery Slope: The Dutch Example," states, "In a study of euthanasia conducted in Dutch hospitals, doctors and nurses reported that more euthanasia requests came from the families of patients than the patients themselves. The investigator for the study concluded that the families, the doctors and the nurses were involved in pressuring patients to request euthanasia."

Certainly, the family is aggrieved to see a loved one hooked up to tubes, hardly resembling the person they once knew, a person who might no longer recognize them. Perhaps the patient is in a "persistent vegetative state" (an insulting phrase to describe the condition of a human being). In trying to persuade an ill relative to accept assisted suicide, family members might be looking to put themselves out of misery. However, though we suffer for our ill ones, there is never a moral right for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In Hendin’s cited paper, he reports, "Over the past two decades, Dutch law and Dutch medicine have evolved from accepting assisted suicide to accepting euthanasia and from euthanasia for terminally ill patients to euthanasia for chronically ill individuals. It then evolved from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress. Finally, it evolved from voluntary euthanasia to the practice and conditional acceptance of non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia."

A government exists to protect citizens’ lives. But in a materialistic world that oversees the deconstruction of Christian morality, we might begin to see human beings treated with utilitarian reductionism. This dysfunction of global civilization, where money has received a false "personhood," tends to objectify human beings as commodities whose value depends upon how much they can produce or contribute to society. Between the rise of international debt and the trend of shrinking birth rates, even legislators might consider hastening death as an expedient, by making the cost of treatment and long care too expensive to merit keeping someone around. At this point, human life becomes hostage to budgetary issues.

What legislation permits often slips into the cultural psyche as morally acceptable. A brief list of possible vulnerable groups who serve as easy targets of "depersonalization" includes the elderly, the chronically or terminally ill, the disabled, the depressed, the mentally ill, those with Alzheimer’s disease and newborns with congenital problems. The list might include others who become "inconvenient." Will personal autonomy exist then? When science and accountants huddle to predict a person’s cost to society, compassion never enters the room.

A human being is an enfleshed soul. No matter the cost, the lives of human beings take priority. Would the summary judgment dismissing some people’s lives as meaningless, even disposable, ignore the successes of veterans and of adults who were born disabled but have labored and discovered ingenious methods to achieve a remarkable level of capability?

Unless we can halt and reverse the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, the prognosis for global civilization will plunge into a self-destructiveness whose death throes we can almost hear now.

What can Catholics do to alter this situation? Prayer is always the first and the last resource. It is our Christian wellspring. Beyond that, we can use the template of our pro-life brothers and sisters by adopting their skills and strategies in political and practical matters.

We must offer alternatives. Our aim is love, not economics. As the Holy Trinity is a relationship — three Persons in one God — so we must model our relationships, because we are made to be relational creatures, connected with the friend and the stranger by compassion and love. We know that "dying with dignity" consists of living life to its natural end.

Each diocese should consider supporting or starting a ministry that recruits volunteers from all ranks of professions and labor to help the sick and their caretakers. Their tasks might include: checking in on the well-being of the patients and their families; renovating houses for patient group homes; providing meals; bringing the holy Eucharist to patients and staying to offer comfort, humor and companionship; running necessary errands; listening to patients and their caretakers; praying with patients as a habit; reading to patients; being present to the sick when they can no longer communicate and speaking to them anyway; praying at patients’ bedsides; being there, if possible, when the natural end comes and helping families not only during the grief process, but long after, through phone calls, visits and other acts of kindness and compassion. Helping a caretaker helps the sick person as well.

How much are you worth? God answered that when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man in the Incarnation and suffered for us in his paschal mystery.

Irene DiSanto writes from

Doral, Florida.