The dictionary defines euthanasia as “the practice of killing for reasons of mercy.” Until recently, virtually everywhere, this was considered both criminal and immoral.
Today, in the Western world at least, this is rapidly changing. The Netherlands’ parliament recently approved the world’s most liberal right-to-die law, making it legal in many cases for a doctor to actively assist a patient in commiting suicide.
In the United States there is Dr. Jack Kervorkian, popularly known as the “suicide doctor,” who has, without prosecution by the law, already assisted 15 people in taking their own lives. More and more, all over the Western world, there is pressure on governments to allow a limited euthanasia.
Formerly we lived by the principle, enshrined legally and medically even when it was not explicitly espoused religiously, that only God is lord of life and death. Today that is being challenged, not just practically but morally.
It is the proponents of euthanasia and doctorassisted suicide that are claiming the moral high ground. It is they who claim to be truly compassionate towards the suffering and dying, they who claim to be opening up for humanity the chance to die with dignity—and it is those who oppose them that are seen to be morally unsophisticated, legalistic, unfeeling, lacking in compassion and ignorant of what in fact enhances human dignity.
What’s to be said about this?
Despite the fact that, for the main part, this comes from a sincere instinct and a sincere desire to be compassionate, it is, in my opinion, dangerously wrong, morally and practically. Why do I say that?
First of all, because it violates one of the most sacred of all taboos, namely, that no human person may actively take a life, including his or her own. God alone is lord of life and death. Moreover, history demonstrates clearly that there is invariably the tendency to take things too far whenever a taboo is breached.
Up until now, we have retained a valuable moral distinction between active and passive in this regard: The belief was that one could refrain from actively intervening, especially by extraordinary means, in order to preserve a life. It was considered moral to let nature take its course at times, to let a person die. But nature snuffed out the heartbeat, not some human person.
Thus, sometimes, life-sustaining machines or intravenous tubes were disconnected and a person was left to die. This was not considered killing or suicide. Nothing was done actively to kill that life. It is this distinction that is being challenged and its demise will, I fear, open Pandora’s box. That is what is more obvious.
What is less obvious and perhaps even more pernicious is that the push for doctor-assisted suicide, for all its moral posturing in the end, props up a very shallow and callous ethic of our age which would have us believe that physical beauty, physical health and physical wholeness are the norm for morality and the only credentials for life itself.
A certain physical quality of life—defined daily more and more by health spas, one’s capacity to be productive and competitive in the world, and even by the fashion industry—becomes a higher value than life itself.
To accept, as legal and moral, doctor-assisted suicide helps move us more towards a world within which Darwin’s evolutionary principle—the survival of the fittest—plays God.
In such a world the weak are ever more marginalized and eventually eliminated . . . while the Jack Kervorkians become heros, get famous and get to be guests on the talk shows. To my mind, that is not progress in human compassion.
In the end, for all their claims of compassion, the mentality and morality of euthanasia, under stand neither the mystery nor the mysticism of physical suffering. We give deep love and life to each other, not just when we are healthy, strong, young, beautiful, productive and bright.
As the mystery of Christ’s own passion and death, the mystery of many painful terminal illnesses, and mystery of many people born with handicaps who have deeply blessed their families has shown, there is just a lot about what gives life and love that we do not understand, but that we feel and know—and which we are given by those who are weak, ill, handicapped, suffering and dying.
We are ever so much poorer, in love and understanding and especially in compassion, when we reduce the mystery of suffering and death to what we can rationally understand and explain.
A little moral sophistication is a dangerous thing. So is the reductionistic compassion of euthanasia.