On September 22, 1996, Bob Dent became the first person in the world to die legally by “assisted suicide,” sometimes also called “voluntary euthanasia,” following the enactment of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in Australia’s Northern Territory. Dent, a carpenter from Darwin, ended his life with the help of Dr. Philip Nitschke, nicknamed “Dr. Death” for his role as the founder and president of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International. Over the years, Nitschke has not only personally helped administer lethal injections to many people desiring death, but also led workshops around the world teaching people to take matters into their own hands for family members or friends. In places where assisted suicide is illegal, Nitschke makes participants sign disclaimers promising not to put his methods into practice (wink, wink).
Nitschke’s Exit International website states, “Exit believes that control over one’s life and death to be a fundamental human right.” But what kind of right is it to commission my own murder? Am I really more free because I can take out a hit on myself? And what about the right not to be euthanized? In Canada, for example, voluntary euthanasia is an increasingly looking non-voluntary. It is now a favored option even for mental illness, as an overextended national health system struggles to keep up with demand for expensive treatment requests.
In the United States, Oregon blazed the paths of death in 1997 with a law called the Death with Dignity Act, which legalized physician-assisted suicide. Dignity is a key word for advocates of euthanasia, which means “good death” in Greek—but Catholics have a radically different understanding of dignity, and a different view of what constitutes both a good life and a good death.
Indeed, dignity is the fundamental basis for human identity in the eyes of God, and it informs the Church’s pro-life positions from conception to natural death. As for what is “voluntary,” God’s will (voluntas in Latin) must always inform our often-misguided ideas about our own desires and needs. For this reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the prohibition on suicide in this way: “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted us. It is not ours to dispose of” (2280).
And where is the dignity in death?
My own father died earlier this year, alone in his bed at home. He had been unwell, and his long-term prospects were bleak, but when he departed this life, he had been in no imminent distress that we knew of. He likely passed peacefully.
Nevertheless, the aftermath was far from stately or decorous. Dad’s neighbor found his decomposing body and had to deal with it. It was a human mess of disquieting sights and acrid odors—evidence of “the wages of sin,” as St. Paul tells us (Rom. 6:23). My sisters and I had to drag his sordid mattress to the dumpster on top of the usual post-mortem practicalities. It was our duty and our joy to care for our father even after death, but the death itself possessed little discernible dignity.
Rather, the dignity of Dad’s death was evident in the rich prayer life he maintained until his dying breath, and the unwavering hope he possessed in “the free gift of God”: “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (again, Rom. 6:23). When I found Dad’s Bible in his apartment, it was well worn and heavily annotated. Dad was not Catholic, but he was always curious about the faith, and he had clearly been preparing himself to face judgment. He loved the Lord more as he grew older and more infirm, and he desired more each day to be received into the kingdom of heaven. It was hard to see Dad suffering, but he never questioned God’s providence.
Here we come to the issue of compassion. Isn’t it more loving, some argue, to allow people to bring their suffering to an end on their own timeline? But as Hamlet worries as he contemplates taking his own life, “what dreams may come?” What if the moral law is true, and a presumed escape from the toils of this life leads to endless agony in the next? What if suicide is no way out at all, and people and governments that enable it are really pushing a philosophy of despair? What if God’s timing really turns out to be perfect, despite anguish that we do not fully understand?
Thus, Christians assert true compassion, which means “suffer with” in Latin. The embodiment of compassion is Christ the suffering servant, who bore his own injuries and ignominies to the end on our behalf. There is nothing we face that Christ has not conquered. And on the basis of his own sacrifice, Christ tells us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Far from helping a sick person die quicker, if put to the test, the Christian would die in the place even of a terminally ill friend. That’s compassion, and that’s what human dignity requires.
As Pope Francis tweeted in 2019, “euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all. We are called never to abandon those who are suffering, never giving up but caring and loving to restore hope.”
Twenty-seven years after the beginning of legal assisted suicide, let us pray that society falls down the slippery slope of Christian compassion, and laws change. May house calls from Dr. Death and his allies cease, and may we say to God in all things, including death, “Thy will be done.”