Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: False Mercy
In a disturbing development, Switzerland has approved a euthanasia device designed to make killing people easier than ever, including in locations where the practice is illegal. The colorful device, with a sleek design that looks like something straight out of a futuristic dystopian movie, was created by euthanasia-enthusiast Dr. Philip Nitschke.
The device is called the Sarco machine, short for “sarcophagus,” i.e., a coffin. Those who wish to die get into the machine. Once inside they can either press a button or (if they lack sufficient motor control to do so) blink or gesture in order to release nitrogen gas which eventually suffocates them to death.
Nitschke, the inventor of the machine, is a notorious figure. Wikipedia, ironically, calls him a “humanist.” However, he is primarily known for founding the group Exit International, to advocate for the “right” for legal euthanasia and assisted suicide. As such he has spent much of his life devising ever cleverer ways to help people kill themselves, often skirting on the edge of (or flagrantly violating) laws prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Among his macabre inventions is the so-called “exit bag,” basically a plastic bag with a draw string that people can use to kill themselves by asphyxiation. Another of his devices is the “deliverance machine,” which is designed to automatically inject people with lethal doses of barbiturates, after they answer a series of questions on a computer, confirming their intent to die.
In 2014, Nitschke lost his medical license in Australia, after he was implicated in the suicide death of Nigel Brayley (45), a man who had been accused of murdering his wife. Instead of referring Brayley – who was perfectly healthy – to a psychiatrist, Nitschke instead advised him on how to kill himself, defending his decision by saying that Brayley had come to a “rational decision” to take his own life.
Like his American counterpart, Dr. Jack Kevorkian – often referred to as “Dr. Death” – Nitschke seems to revel in the process of helping people die, and has a flair for self-promotion. Writing about the Sarco device, anti-euthanasia campaigner Alex Schadenberg notes, “Nitschke is a death salesman and the Sarco is his latest deadly device to create attention to his deadly business, while killing people along the way.”
Spreading the Culture of Death
Schadenberg, who has closely followed Nitschke’s career, points out that the doctor’s enthusiasm for euthanasia is so promiscuous that he has said even “troubled teens” or those who are merely depressed should be helped to kill themselves.
“[A]ll people qualify, not just those with the training, knowledge, or resources to find out how to ‘give away’ their life,” he said in a 2001 interview. “And someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or resource necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, the troubled teen.”
Nitschke’s suicide pod was designed so that anyone with the technology can download plans for the device, and then use “3D printing” technology to “print” one. Bizarrely, Nitschke is hoping to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which can be used to test if someone really wants to die. If the AI program determines that they do, then they will be provided with the plans for the device, without a human being ever being involved.
“Currently a doctor or doctors need to be involved to prescribe the sodium pentobarbital and to confirm the person’s mental capacity,” Nitschke told SwissInfo. “We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves.”
Nitschke’s strange obsession with pushing the boundaries and making euthanasia and assisted suicide more and more accessible to more and more people, regardless of whether they are suffering from a terminal illness or not, is an instance of the often-ignored dark side of the pro-euthanasia movement.
Like abortion advocates, euthanasia advocates will often tout the “hard cases” – i.e., people with terminal illnesses that tend to lead to significant physical suffering – in order to push for legalization. However, in nations where euthanasia and assisted suicide have first been legalized in such hard cases, there is a tendency to repeatedly loosen requirements, allowing a broader and broader spectrum of people to end their lives legally, including the depressed and mentally ill. Similarly, doctors and nurses tend to progressively push the legal boundary, leading to the widespread practice of so-called “involuntary euthanasia” – i.e., murder – in places like the Netherlands, often without legal ramifications.
‘Death with Dignity’
This dangerous “slippery slope” and the way it exposes the vulnerable, sick, and elderly to exploitation by unscrupulous doctors, nurses, and family members is only one of many reasons why the Church has consistently and strongly condemned euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Unfortunately, those who promote euthanasia and assisted suicide are increasingly winning the argument. As on so many other issues, advocates of the Culture of Death have mastered the language of “compassion” and “choice” – painting suicide as something that promotes “dignity” and “freedom.”
In this context, it is crucial that Catholics educate themselves both on the facts and Church teaching about euthanasia and assisted suicide. In a recent document that every Catholic should read, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that euthanasia is “a crime against human life” and “is an intrinsically evil act, in every situation or circumstance.” In other words, euthanasia and assisted suicide are never morally acceptable.
As on so many ethical issues, there are widespread misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Church’s teachings on end of life issues. For instance, many people (including advocates for euthanasia and assisted suicide) seem to think that the Church requires a patient and their doctors and nurses to do everything possible to keep them alive for as long as possible. They then argue that striving to prolong life at all costs can lead to disturbing scenarios in which human dignity suffers, and physical suffering is prolonged beyond reasonable limits.
However, the Church teaches that life-prolonging therapy need not be used if it provides insufficient benefit or imposes an excessive burden. The long moral tradition of the Church, regarding end of life issues, has been the moral distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means. This distinction involves an assessment of the burdens and benefits of a treatment, as taught in the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops: “A person has a moral obligation to use ordinary or proportionate means of preserving his or her life.” Those means of preserving life are “ordinary” and therefore obligatory when they “in the judgment of the patient offer a reasonable hope of benefit and do not entail an excessive burden or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.” (no. 56) Furthermore, the Church teaches that “a person may forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means of preserving life. Disproportionate means are those that in the patient’s judgment do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.” (no. 57)
The phrase the “right to die” is, typically, used by pro-euthanasia activists to promote the alleged “right” to proactively end one’s life. However, in a 1980 document, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that the “right to die,” when rightly understood, can refer to “the right to die peacefully with human and Christian dignity.”
“From this point of view, the use of therapeutic means can sometimes pose problems,” the document adds. There may be cases, it continues, in which a patient or doctor may judge that certain “extraordinary” interventions are “disproportionate to the results foreseen” – that is, they may “impose on the patient strain or suffering out of proportion with the benefits which he or she may gain from such techniques.”
The document continues:
Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide; on the contrary, it should be considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected, or a desire not to impose excessive expense on the family or the community. When inevitable death is imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted. In such circumstances the doctor has no reason to reproach himself with failing to help the person in danger.
This wording echoes the teaching of the Catechism, which states in paragraph 2278: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.”
Thou Shalt Not Murder
Nevertheless, while the Church leaves legitimate leeway for patients and doctors to exercise their consciences, and champions medical advances in areas like palliative care that might reduce suffering, the Church is also quite clear that there are lines that should never, ever be crossed, not even out of a misguided “compassion.” Here I am reminded of the words of Pope St. John Paul II: “Even when not motivated by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy. True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 66)
As the Catechism states in paragraph 2277: “[A]n act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.”
Human life is a gift from God. It is His to give, and His to take. By taking death into our own hands, we reject that gift and arrogate to ourselves power that is not ours.
Dr. Nitschke’s Sarco pod may look sleek and attractive on the outside. But it is no more than a whitewashed sepulchre, marking a new assault on the dignity of human life. “[E]uthanasia is an act of homicide that no end can justify and that does not tolerate any form of complicity or active or passive collaboration,” stated the CDF in the document referenced above. “Those who approve laws of euthanasia and assisted suicide, therefore, become accomplices of a grave sin that others will execute.”
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are the next front of the battle against the culture of death. Even as we make progress on the beginning of life, with the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade on the horizon and abortion rates falling in recent decades, advocates of the culture of death are increasing the pressure at the end of life. With a rapidly aging population, we can expect the pressure only to continue growing.
The same grit, determination, and skill that we have exercised in protecting the dignity and right to life of the unborn must now be exercised in protecting our vulnerable, sick, and elderly from the likes of Dr. Nitschke, who are sadly misusing their intelligence and energy to undermine human dignity.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.