Freedom of Choice
I’ve been mulling over the idea of mercy killing and euthanasia for three days now, wondering what to write about, wondering what I thought about it all, watching terrible 70’s dystopian movies in the hopes that inspiration would strike, and generally just spinning my wheels. When I converted to Catholicism I got a crash-course in Catholic doctrine, focusing mostly on the things I would need to know immediately, like Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae. Mercy killing and euthanasia were, I’m sure, included in the sections that covered human dignity, but they weren’t on my radar at the time. They haven’t been since then, to be honest, until the Ignitum editors started floating the idea of this symposium. All along, I’ve been trying to come up with something to write about mercy killing, because that seemed the clearer injustice of the two. It seemed to me to be the bigger danger, the bigger threat, the threat we already see being played out when 90% of Down’s Syndrome babies are aborted and 73% of Canadians defended a father’s right to kill his own daughter. Mercy killing isn’t a theory, it’s a reality. It’s happening. Surely, I thought, surely euthanasia pales in comparison to the horror of mercy killing.
But as I tried to figure out which angle to come at, which argument to make about mercy killing, I began to realize that there is literally nothing I can say about mercy killing that everyone reading these words doesn’t know. Killing people is wrong. It’s wrong if they’re small, tiny, in-utero people, it’s wrong if they’re 5 day old people, it’s wrong if they’re 25 year old people with cerebral palsy, it’s wrong if they’re 68 year old people with Down’s Syndrome. It’s wrong no matter what the motive is. Yes, individual cases can be enormously complicated and every person involved should be shown compassion and pity, but I don’t have any personal experience with such a thing. There is no light I can shed on the subject of mercy killing. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said infinitely better by loads of theologians and scholars.
So I turned my attention, rather reluctantly, to euthanasia. Most specifically, to voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide.
I really didn’t want to write about assisted suicide. I still don’t. I don’t like thinking about assisted suicide, or suicide in general. Long before I converted, the Catholic position on suicide horrified me. I saw a suicidal person as a person to be pitied above all, and the idea that a person who committed suicide would be sent to hell and denied a Christian burial seemed to me a cruelty beyond words.
There were a few other things about Catholic teaching that nearly hindered my conversion. The prohibition on birth control was a big one, the fact that missing Mass is a mortal sin another. The sheer size of the Catechism made me doubt my own sanity in even considering converting. So many rules! So much to remember! How would I ever even keep straight what was and wasn’t a mortal sin, let alone remember not to commit them?
It took me many years after my conversion to realize what my real problem was with Catholic teaching on suicide, birth control, and even missing Mass. My problem with all these rules was that they reminded me that I am not free. I do not rule myself. I do not have sole autonomy over my life, my reproduction, or even one single, solitary Sunday. And that makes me angry sometimes. Sometimes it makes me feel trapped and bitter. Sometimes it comforts me and brings me peace. But it always sets me apart from secular culture.
I asked some of my friends on facebook what they thought about euthanasia, and one of them responded with the following:
“I’ve heard the argument that euthanasia in case of pain is unacceptable because the suffering can be united to the suffering of Jesus. Excuse me for thinking this is fanatical and disturbing. If you want to unite your suffering to Jesus, that is laudable. Don’t force someone else to who wants it to end. I do think (heretically) that people have the choice over their own lives, but I think every effort should be made to address the underlying issues before saying “ok, here ya go! Hope you really meant it!” Would we give mercy killings to depressed teenagers? Why would we give mercy killings to depressed old people? Address the cause of the depression. And yet, the choice to live or die is a fundamental human choice.”
I read that and thought, yes, that makes sense to me. I’m a faithful Catholic, and as such I understand that this is the wrong perspective to have. I understand, and believe, what the Catechism says about freedom: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the ‘slavery of sin’ (CCC 1733).” Yet still I find my friend’s perspective nearly impossible to argue with. It’s the voice of our culture. Autonomy, personal freedom of choice, has become our most sacred right. The major problem with this, of course, is that no man is an island. Our own choices affect others. A woman’s autonomy over her own body can easily become autonomy over a second body living inside hers. The woman’s freedom to choose can and does result in the death of another person. But what do we say when freedom of choice seemingly has no effect on the world around the one choosing? How do we convince a culture whose milk and meat is personal freedom that an elderly, ailing, dying person, alone in the world and in pain, does not have the personal freedom to choose a release from their pain? How do you convince someone who might not even believe in God that to end their suffering by choosing death would be an offense against God? What does a person with little or no faith, in the face of unbearable agony with no immediate end, care about “slavery of sin?” And how can we even begin to bring such an argument to a culture which has lost its faith in God? If there were no God, we would indeed be the sole arbiters of our destiny, including the destiny to live or die. Freedom would mean just exactly what our culture thinks it does.
Voluntary euthanasia is an almost impossible concept to argue against in today’s world. In many ways it’s more difficult than abortion, because there is no victim we can point to. There is only a suffering, miserable human and a compassionate doctor who wants to help. It isn’t about murder or malice even despair, although I’m sure those things have played into such cases in the past. It is quite simply the most fundamental question of freedom that a human can face: do we have autonomy over our own lives? I can’t see any way to convince the culture at large that voluntary euthanasia is intrinsically wrong without first taking down the god of freedom of choice, and the only way to take down the god of freedom of choice is to resurrect the true God in the public sphere.