Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Dying with Dignity

By Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.

California again faces the political and moral debate about "death with dignity." This phrase, however, badly describes the main issue. Persons always die with dignity. They are sacred. God embraces them. Everyone's dignity is indelible. Our worth is inherent. Our humanity is permanent. The real concern is not death, but dying. People fear dying. Physician-Assisted suicide laws manipulate this fear.

On April 12th the California State Assembly Judiciary Committee passed AB 654. Modeled on Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, AB 654 would allow persons to request medication that kills them. Untruthful advocates indicate it merely "hastens death." It does not. It kills. The bill's requirements are five-fold:

  • Two physicians agree that a person has less then six months to live.
  • A person makes consistent requests to kill him or herself, and has been counseled.
  • Physicians determine that there is no mental illness.
  • The person can take the killing medication without assistance.
  • The person alone makes this decision.

Proponents argue that killing oneself eliminates pain, dependency, and cost. They insist that killing oneself brings dignity to an undignified process.

Vermont also faces a "death with dignity" law. It redefines suicide by stating that assisted-killing "shall not, for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing, or homicide." This is a clear signal: Today, self-killing, tomorrow, involuntary killing. The Dutch Groningen Protocol 2004 proposes allowing doctors to euthanize terminally ill newborn babies and persons with severe mental retardation.

The fact is that we are no longer on a slippery slope. We are on a precipice. The Oregon law, for example, makes it against the law to state death by self-killing (assisted suicide) on the death certificate. It must say death by a terminal illness!

AB 654 assaults four critical interactions: the physician-patient relationship (the doctor becomes the agent for killing), family relationships (one kills oneself and abandons family and friends), society (its obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us), health care (palliative and comfort care are thought inadequate).

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II wrote, "In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting … euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it." (n. 73) Why?

We face a new moral problem today regarding the proper use of freedom. AB 654 is an example of utilitarian ethics. It is based on the conviction that we tend only to self-interest. In this viewpoint, persons seek only what seems right to them. They do not seek what is good in itself, for example, human dignity and self-respect.

AB 654 creates a world where God does not exist. It creates a context outside the parameters of good and evil. It abandons the Christian demand to "learn Christ" who entrusted himself into the Father's hands, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Lk 23:46)

Carl Jung wrote, "If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance towards oneself can only have good results." AB 654 dumps self-respect, our vulnerable side, and our love for family and friends. The "I" becomes central. Everything else is forfeited.

George Eliot said that "it is never too late to be what you might have been." Dying is not undignified when I learn Jesus, trust the health care system, count on family and friends, and believe the testimony of Christ, "I will not leave you orphans." (John 14:18)

Gerald Coleman, S.S., is president of St. Patrick's Seminary.
May 5, 2005

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