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The Great Contradiction: suicide & euthanasia



Pro-Life apologetics series

One social phenomenon that has received increased attention in recent years, and rightly so, is the growing number of teen and young adult suicides in America. Even in such politically and ideologically divided times, everyone seems to agree that such an event is always a tragedy; there are no circumstances in which a young person’s life is actually no longer worth living. And there is widespread support for combatting those circumstances that might make someone feel as if they can no longer go on, such as depression, bullying, anxiety, etc. This is one area in which our culture appears to be, surprisingly, quite pro-life.

However, there is a deeper existential crisis at work here. Young people struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts are picking up on the fact that our culture does not always claim that life is worth living at all times.  In fact, we have cemented into law exactly the opposite viewpoint. The legalization of abortion nationwide sends the message that the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable are not worth the hardships that their parents may face as a result of their birth.  And, more directly related to suicide, the legalization of euthanasia in some states communicates that there are indeed circumstances in which one’s quality of life can be so impaired that life is not worth living, based on a random evaluation of these circumstances.

These laws stem from and reinforce a materialistic and hedonistic conception of life in which the only things that seemingly matter are health, pleasure, and success (see Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, Healing the Culture).  They eradicate the Judeo-Christian worldview in which the value of life is determined by the fact that life is valuable precisely because it is life and is not based on circumstances of convenience or comfort.  Human life is transcendent—its worth comes not from external cultural measures, but from the fact that it is made in the image and likeness of God, and that God calls each person to participate in His own life.

So, when the overwhelming message of the culture is that human life is only valuable under certain tenable circumstances, and this fact is cemented into law, it is no wonder that many people struggle with the concept of life itself.  By what measure do they determine whether their own life is worth living? So many people are already lost, are already confused about what it means to live. The way that suicide is starting to be viewed in America—as a horrendous tragedy when committed by young people who are suffering, and perfectly acceptable for the elderly, disabled, or sick, is a contradiction of unprecedented scale.  We certainly can’t expect to lower suicide rates at the same time that the normalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia is actively sought.

A United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pamphlet on assisted suicide explains this quite well: “The law itself is a teacher. Our laws shape cultural attitudes toward certain behaviors and influence social norms. Laws permitting assisted suicide communicate the message that, under especially difficult circumstances, some lives are not worth living. This tragically false message will be heard not only by those with a terminal illness, but by any person struggling with the temptation to end his or her life.  Every suicide is tragic. We don’t discourage suicide by assisting suicide.”

The evidence confirms this.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August of 2017 found that in the Netherlands, where “physician assistance in dying” has been legally regulated since 2002, between 1990 and 2015 the percentage of all deaths for which euthanasia accounted increased from 1.7% to 4.5%.  A study published in the Southern Medical Journal in October of 2015 found that there was a 6.3% increase in total suicides in U.S. states where physician assisted suicide has been legalized.

When it comes to pro-life apologetics, there are many sound and convincing arguments against euthanasia.  However, to a certain extent, arguing against euthanasia and assisted suicide can often be harder than arguing against abortion.  This is because, while abortion is directly connected to the right to live, the problem of euthanasia deals more directly with the meaning of living; it gets right to the heart of how and why we should live our lives.  It can be hard to find common ground with people here, especially when our culture is so concerned with giving power to the individual and refraining from any and all judgment about the way someone lives.

A very effective place to start, however, may be that for the most part, people do still recognize the tragedy of suicide when it is not an instance of assisted suicide or euthanasia.  Helping them to recognize why they believe that suicide is a tragedy in these cases, and then applying that same logic to euthanasia, could help them see why life is worth living in all stages and circumstances, why the Church teaches that “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable” (CCC 2277).   

Society breaks down when it no longer recognizes the dignity of the human person.  We see this in the case of the suicide/euthanasia dilemma. The rights which come from the innate dignity of the human person “are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy” (CCC 1930).

In essence, society flourishes when its laws and norms are in accordance with the Divine Revelation of truth (i.e. the 10 Commandments, etc.) and fails when it undermines this fundamental truth.  And yet, none of this is anything new. Jesus Christ, who is the truth, has told us from the very beginning that anything built on a contradiction cannot survive: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25-26).

Noelle Johnson is Co-Commissioner of Notre Dame Right to Life’s Apologetics Commission.  She is a sophomore majoring in theology and physics. Contact her at njohns16@nd.edu.

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