There are three phrases that have provided an effective impetus for legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia: “Death with dignity,” “the autonomous human being” and “a humanistic perspective.”
Each of these phrases, however, is essentially ambiguous. Since they are crucial to an enlightened discussion of euthanasia and assisted suicide, it is imperative that their different meanings be carefully examined.
‘Death With Dignity’
Dignity, in the secular view, is a transitory phenomenon. A person who has dignity in this sense may lose it. The concept of “death with dignity” presumes that it is better to die with dignity than to continue to live without it. Nonetheless, “dignity” is not defined with any degree of clarity. It is used largely for rhetorical purposes. No one can pinpoint the moment when a person loses his dignity. Moreover, no one can determine which persons lack dignity and which ones possess it. Yet this phrase — “death with dignity” — continues to be persuasive to many. Ironically, the secular view regards dignity as more important than life, since it accepts death but does not accept a loss of dignity.
A more traditional notion of dignity is often tied to religion. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, man holds a twofold dignity: One is an endowment or gift; the other is an achievement or acquisition. The first dignity is the result of man’s being created in the image of God. The second comes into being as the result of man’s living in accord with the divine law (Summa Theologica, I. Q 93, a.4). Man’s original dignity is a divine seal that is irremovable and assures him that, no matter what misfortunes he suffers, his life will always possess dignity. In this sense, Christ did not die without dignity, though he died in an undignified manner.
The moral significance of dignity being of divine origin is that it serves as a shield against exploitation and violence. Because man possess dignity in this sense, he has a claim to inviolability. Therefore, this inalienable dignity renders a person ineligible for euthanasia.
‘The Autonomous Human Being’
The secular notion of autonomy implies that a person is in charge of his life and therefore reserves the right to end it when he judges it is propitious to do so. Margaret Somerville, in her thoughtful book on bioethics, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit, argues that the concept of the human being as primarily an individual paves the way for assisted suicide and euthanasia. “Intense individualism,” she writes, favors euthanasia. “A highly individualistic approach,” she goes on to say, “especially in a society that gives pre-eminence to the values of personal autonomy and self-determination, is acceptable for those who want it.”
The dominant message of this type of individualism is that only the needs of the individual matter. The human being, however, taken in his totality, is more than a mere individual. He is a person who is both individualistic and communal. His life is a dynamic integration between his individual uniqueness and communal responsibilities. Thus, in matters of death, other people — family members, friends and others — are part of his life and should not be set aside as irrelevant to his end-of-life decision. Autonomy does not capture the nature of the human being. It is a word that is used to simplify the euthanasia discussion.
The person is a relational being, and this dimension of his existence, which includes his relationship with God, is increasingly ignored in the modern world. Writing for The Human Life Review, Ellen Wilson Fielding writes:
“Next to this deadly trio of motives — autonomy, mercy and cost-saving — in a culture increasingly less comfortable with appeals to traditional moral absolutes, the standard sanctity-of-life and slippery-slope arguments against assisted suicide and euthanasia continue to cede ground.”
Reducing the person to an individual is an injustice to the person and a dismissal of reasonable arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide.
‘A Humanistic Perspective’
A number of highly influential atheists of the modern era — Comte, Freud, Marx, Lenin, Nietzsche and Sartre — view the human being in purely anthropological terms. They see man solely as man, severed from any connection with a transcendent being. They are one in postulating that the condition of man’s liberty is the death of God.
Auguste Comte, for example, argues that Christianity and humanism are antagonistic to each other. He labels Christians as “slaves of God” and advocates of humanism as “servants of humanity.” For Comte, only the “religion” of humanity can make man free. The father of sociology indicted Christianity as being inherently anti-social, both in its doctrine as well as in its practice.
Atheistic humanism is congenial to euthanasia. One the one hand, it rejects a God who commands his people not to kill. On the other hand, it interprets compassion and mercy as humane means of putting human beings who may be severely depressed or acutely suffering out of their misery. Being humane, in this sense, respects a person’s freedom to choose death.
St. John Paul II, Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac argue that atheistic humanism is really inhuman humanism, for it denies a significant element of man’s being, namely his relationship with God. According to John Paul, treating the humanum without relating him to the divinum results in man’s dehumanization.
Maritain, in his book, True Humanism, makes the claim: “Anthropocentric humanism merits the name of inhuman humanism and that its dialectic must needs be regarded as the tragedy of humanism.” In his penetrating study The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Henri de Lubac concludes:
“Man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God, he can only organize the world against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”
The secular understanding of dignity, autonomy and humanism is truncated because it fails to include the richer dimensions that a sacred dignity, relational personhood and theocentric humanism provide. The secular vision is defective because it sees only fragments and not the whole.
The more complete our vision becomes, concerning the nature of the human being, the less plausible become the rationalizations that are proposed in defense of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The more accurately we define dignity, personhood and humanism, the less likely we are to choose death.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.