It is alarming the overwhelming support Death with Dignity is receiving and how quickly the American people have embraced it. In fact, it is infuriating. Just quickly scanning through the content of Death with Dignity’s website and reading the “testimonies” and support from misguided individuals will leave one quite disturbed.
Death with Dignity promotes physician assisted suicide to those who are diagnosed to be terminally sick or dying. However, supporters veil this reality by speaking of the right to peacefully “fall asleep” and to “die with dignity.” Verbiage from advocates includes that these “mercy-killings” will allow one to “avoid senseless pain, suffering” and that many will chose to “die with dignity” when “face[d] with the stark realities of painful death.”
Each story recalls the tragedy of the passing of a loved one and speaks of the emotional journey one experienced by watching their loved one slowly die for several months or years. Some speak of suicides committed wrought by a particular illness while others write of their own battle with a terminal illness, mainly cancer. They all advocate for the “right” to choose how they will die, stating that by doing so, they will die in a more “humane manner.” Of course, this is all advertised in the name of compassion.
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Yet, a common element which underlines each story is not compassion but one of fear. There is an unspoken fear that one will die in ways similar to their parents or relatives, or that one will suffer a prolonged death. These fears are natural for everyone experiences a fear of prolonged suffering or death or an aspect of death at some time and to some extent. When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a man of great faith, was asked in Last Testament if he fears death, he responded: “In a certain respect, yes, for one thing there is the fear that one is imposing on people through a long period of disability. I would find that very distressing.” Yet, the retired pontiff continues, “the closer you come to his face, the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong. In this respect the burden of guilt always weighs on someone, but the basic trust is of course always there.” Even Christ when experiencing the agony in the Garden asks that the chalice of suffering to pass if it be God’s will.
Death and the sufferings which precede it was never intended for humanity in the garden. Man seems to sense this, for in his very nature, he does not naturally accept those things which he considers to be evil, such as suffering. Society attempts to remedy this fear by seeking to escape death and its process on their own terms.
Though the slogan which Death with Dignity promotes seems nice and the idea of peacefully “falling asleep” may sound ideal, the reality of the matter is that by ending one’s life prematurely, man despairs and selfishly deprives relatives and friends of sharing in the final months or years of his life. Sure, all of us want to die a peaceful death—I would be remiss to think otherwise. Yet, this is why we should pray daily to Saint Joseph for a peaceful death and is the reason why the Church prays for those who will die each day. In so doing, the Church reminds man to live with the end in mind, recalling that “to dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” This reality enables us to live our lives purposefully for it causes us to live with our final end in mind and so prepares us to accept the death in store for us. But alas, this concept seems to be too much for society to bear, for man must be able to control even death itself. Death now must come when we want it and how we want it.
One of the fundamental problems of society, amongst many others, is the fear of suffering. This is reflective in the mission and twisted philosophy of Death with Dignity. The value of suffering is overlooked and deemed as a weakness, even to the point that one determines when their own life has meaning. Death with Dignity reveals these aspects in their sample letters to physicians which entail asking the doctor to end the patient’s life when the patient is “no longer able to find meaning in life.” Instead of reaffirming that the true dignity of each human lies not in health but in the fact that each human person is made in God’s image and likeness and that life has an immense value despite suffering, advocates for Death with Dignity place the dignity of the human person solely on a subjective level. Thus, the dignity of the human person becomes stripped away once one determines whether or not their life has a meaning or purpose.
Since society wishes to “be kind” to our fellow brothers and sisters, the only logical response to suffering seems to be the proposal of allowing one to happily end their life by permitting them to “fall asleep.” Physician assisted suicide allows one the perfect cop-out because ending one’s life seems beneficial both for the person who is suffering and those who witness the suffering of their loved ones. In the end, those who support death with dignity believe that “no one gets hurt” as both parties are spared from the suffering which the natural process of death entails.
Besides the fact that physician-assisted suicide (death with dignity) excludes the Author of Life, the philosophy behind this movement is gravely flawed. By sparing oneself from the hardship which the natural process of death entails, man not only despairs but also deprives himself of demonstrating love to his dying relatives and friends. Watching someone as they commence a long journey battling a terminal disease or walking one through the natural process of death demands more of the person. It requires genuine compassion, and above all, love.
Love and compassion, as defenders of Death with Dignity proclaim, are the two central motives at the heart of their campaign. They argue that these ideas of love and compassion urge one to honor the request of a relative, friend or stranger to end their lives in a “respectable” manner before suffering ensues. However, genuine compassion and love does not seek to escape suffering nor does it serve as an excuse to be exempt from the duty of encouraging one on their journey, however painful it may be for both parties.
C.S. Lewis tells us in his Problem of Pain that “kindness cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering,” while love “would rather see (the loved one) suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.” Lewis continues his distinction between kindness and love, saying “There is kindness in Love; but Love and kindness are not conterminous, and when kindness is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it.”
What does Lewis mean by this? He means precisely this: mere kindness enables one to be indifferent to the actual good of the person. It will commit to anything, whether evil or good, to make the person happy. Thus, kindness looks for ways to escape suffering, even if it entails ending one’s life. Only love enables one to be compassionate, that is to be able to suffer with the other and share in the pain of the other.
However, man by himself cannot fully grasp and embrace the concept that love at times entails watching one suffer. This reality can never be fully understood without viewing suffering from a Christian perspective. For Christians, those who suffer have a purpose in life, for suffering is redemptive. With the Incarnation, God enters the world of human suffering. He takes upon himself the human suffering of the whole world and experiences every type of pain: physical, mental, and spiritual. Christ’s love for humanity causes him to willingly submit to the sufferings of the Passion and of the cross for it is only through suffering that man is given new life.
Just as Christ’s sufferings have a meaning and purpose, man’s sufferings also have a purpose as he shares in God’s salvific act by uniting his sufferings to Christ’s. John Paul II says in Salvifici Dolores that “to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.” Without the Christian view of redemptive suffering, man becomes bitter for suffering becomes unnecessary and an unintelligible evil.
With the approval of five states and the District of Columbia, the Death with Dignity movement has been able to appeal to those who are afraid of suffering by speaking of dying with “self-respect” and “dignity.” Yet, it is crucial to understand they have grossly misinterpreted the word “dignity.” Dying with dignity does not result from the decision to end life because of the fear of a prolonged death that will be endured or the suffering their illness may cause loved ones. Anyone who believes so only fools themselves for by their support they proclaim that life has no meaning when suffering is entailed—that it is better to despair by ending one’s life than to continue to live. These advocates, or champions, for the “dignity” of the terminally ill ultimately strip away the dignity of the sufferer for they place the dignity of each sick person purely on a subjective level.
Genuine death with dignity, dying naturally, is courageous for it dares to live despite suffering. It affirms the dignity of the human person as grounded in the image and likeness of God and recognizes that the beauty of life entails both the moments of joy and health as well as the sorrows and sufferings which are part of life. Dying with true dignity means accepting and embracing the suffering of a terminal illness and the death which ensues, no matter how prolonged the process may be. True death with dignity does not “opt” out of life—it fearlessly charges on as it recognizes the immense power of redemptive suffering and affirms the value of each human being who suffers.