Mark Miller, C.Ss.R. Ph.D.
At a recent forum on euthanasia and assisted suicide in Edmonton, Sharon Carstairs, a member of the Senate Committee preparing its report for Parliament, commented on the broad range of opinions that the Committee has heard. Doctors, lawyers, clergy, ethicists and ordinary citizens spoke out, often with strong feeling, both for and against changing the law. One theme, however, caught my attention—those who wanted the law to change demanded the freedom to choose when to die.
Although no one (not even the Committee members at the time I write this) knows what recommendations will be made to Parliament, it is my suspicion that the ‘freedom to choose’ will provide a powerful impetus to legalize at least assisted suicide in some form. After all, if a person freely chooses to end his or her life, why should it be illegal to provide help? Indeed, as it is often put, whose life is it anyway?
Implicit in all this argumentation, especially about free choice, is the oft-overlooked claim that suicide is sometimes good. Ironically, our society has slowly turned from a horror of suicide to numerous discussions and books which automatically assume that killing oneself is quite moral under some circumstances. Derek Humphries’ book Final Exit, on the best ways to kill oneself, actually became a best-seller.
To value suicide or call it good flies in the face of Christian teaching and tradition. Because we know the Lord of life, we trust the God who gives us life and who knows when to call us home. In a world where God increasingly becomes little more than an extension of human desires and plans, we Christians need to take a two-pronged approach to talking others out of the flattering seduction of suicide. First, we need to live our lives in complete hope and trust in our God wherever this gift of life takes us. But, second, we need to provide the best and most convincing reasons why our society, or any society, ought not to flirt with killing, even personally chosen self-killing.
Though I do not have enough space to develop the arguments, I would like to propose six reasons why our society needs to shore up its conviction that suicide is wrong.
First, psychologists tell us that the vast majority of suicidal tendencies stem from depression or other mental problems. For our society to sanction some suicides is to open a door with an almost-impossible-to-define threshold allowing so-called ‘free’ or ‘rational’ suicides while trying to stop those impulses of minds strained by unknown pressures.
Second, I believe we are becoming the kind of society which is more and more unwilling to face the kinds of hopelessness, despair, loneliness and depression which so many people suffer. To sanction suicide would be little more than giving in to these terrors of the human spirit. Suicide gives ultimate value to human suffering rather than human tenacity and hopefulness. Too easily will society be able to wash its hands of the afflicted, for suicide is an easy way to avoid caring or dealing with broken spirits.
Third, suicide makes at least one instance of killing okay. Logic will accomplish the rest. If I wish to commit suicide but am unable, then somebody must help me (assisted suicide). If I become unconscious and would commit suicide if I were able but cannot, then somebody must kill me (euthanasia). And so on.
Fourth, the idea that suicide is a free choice like any other suffers from one drastic flaw—a successful suicide is final. There is never any way of determining whether or not this was a good idea. Those who fail in suicide attempts are often very grateful for a second chance to live. Any attempt to call suicide good makes an unwarranted and unverifiable assumption about the very meaning of death.
Fifth, the legacy of successful suicide involves a tremendous amount of pain for those left behind. Unanswerable questions abound: Why? Didn’t we care enough? Were there no other alternatives? Did I contribute to this? The utter hopelessness in the aftermath of a suicide can be overwhelming. Dealing with death is hard enough without having to try and answer impossible questions concerning the ‘free choosing’ of a loved one.
Sixth, and finally, I fear that as suicide becomes a possible choice for the dying, it will become more acceptable to young people and troubled people who feel overwhelmed by hopelessness. If it is good for dying people to get things over with, why not for the rest of us? Hopelessness, it seems, is expressed and symbolized in the choice of death. Any societal approval can only increase the attractiveness of the option.
In our society, I fear, suicide has quietly become ‘just another choice for those who want it.’ Morally, such a position implies that sometimes it is actually good to choose to kill oneself. But if suicide were to become a good and, perhaps even the fashionable pathway to die, would it not be logical to assume that society would eventually find it more and more difficult to care for (and spend money on) those who did not choose to hurry their deaths?
The mystery of death, the finality of death, even the gift and wonder of death are slowly giving way to the technologies or taking control of the moment of death. Notice I speak of the ‘moment’ of death; for what could it possibly mean to control our own death? To me the irony of suicide lies in the claim that the exercise of a free choice does some good (makes me freer? more alive? more what? what is the good?). For, ultimately, suicide only gives way to a final and complete isolation. Were society to condone such killing, it would condone the abandonment of the individual. That is clearly not Christ’s way. Nor should Christians allow society to be seduced to such care-lessness.