“It’s not true that the German Holocaust was simply a war crime, as it was judged to be at Nuremberg. In point of fact, it was based upon a perfectly coherent, legally enacted decree approved and operated by the German medical profession before the Nazis took over power. In other words, from the point of view of the Guinness Book of World Records you can say that in our mad world it takes about 30 years to transform a war crime into a compassionate act.”
Malcolm Muggeridge, the British Catholic commentator and author, made this chilling observation decades ago in The Great Liberal Death Wish, yet it remains relevant today. Despite a legacy of failed secular utopias designed to banish sin and human suffering, we continue to believe that good intentions — severed from a belief in God and an acceptance of his moral law — will nonetheless protect the weak and defenseless from the evil that lurks in our hearts.
In recent years, the movement to legalize assisted suicide hasn’t fueled the kind of explosive polarizing debate that accompanied the struggle over the fate of Terri Schiavo. But the news of Jack Kevorkian’s death on June 3 drew our attention to a resurgent national campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide — Kevorkian’s signature cause. From the West Coast to the East Coast, advocates for assisted suicide hope to reverse laws that prevent physicians from hastening the demise of their patients.
The U.S. bishops have taken note of recent legislative efforts to legalize assisted suicide, and they are addressing the topic at their mid-June meeting in Seattle. According to a published summary, the draft document “To Live Each Day With Dignity” critiques the characterization of assisted suicide as a “compassionate” response to human suffering and terminal illness. In contrast, the document defends the traditional moral framework for health care that “dedicates itself to meeting patients’ needs and presupposes a commitment to their equal worth.” Any philosophy of bioethics that ignores the equal worth of each patient will soon find “more and more people whose suffering is considered serious enough for assisted death, such as those with chronic illness and disabilities.”
The power of medical technology has fueled people’s dreams for miraculous cures and nightmarish visions of an end-of-life twilight state — a kind of living death. Thus, it is more important than ever to understand that the Church’s prohibition against euthanasia is no mandate for an extended high-tech death. “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which also confirms that aggressive pain relief for dying patients is morally licit. Kevorkain, dubbed “Dr. Death,” exploited our fears but also an increasingly secular mindset that struggled to identify new ways to address the problem of human suffering in a world without God.
Ultimately, as he assisted in the suicides of more than 100 patients, Kevorkian appropriated the very role of God himself. Yet his legacy remains limited.
“It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life,” states the Catechism. “We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”