Death with Dignity and Other Euphemisms

Our society is very fond of euphemisms. We like to wrap up difficult ideas and realities with words that make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at least distract us from the real meaning behind the word or phrase we are using. Phrases like pass awayfriendly fire, and letting someone go, litter our vocabulary. We don’t even notice that we are stepping back from the truth when we use phrases like this because it is so common.

In Massachusetts, the Death with Dignity Act will be on the ballots on November 6th as Question 2. If passed, it would allow doctors in the state of Massachusetts to prescribe a lethal dose of prescription sleeping pills for people who are terminally ill and want to take their life.If you do not live in Massachusetts, The Hemlock Society or, excuse me again with the euphemisms, the organization now known as Compassion and Choices, is working to ensure that referendums like this will be coming to a state near you.

Unfortunately, many Massachusetts voters plan to vote for the ballot initiative. This is not surprising, as we live in a society where moral relativism is the norm and people find it odd to suggest that it is possible to find common moral ground in a pluralistic society. However, whether or not you think a person has a right to kill himself or not, the question is whether the state should be involved in assisting someone to commit suicide. Even if you support a person’s right to end their life, it is clear that simply from a logical and practical standpoint, suicide is not something we want to become socially acceptable and, in this case, encouraged by our government.


Let’s look at Oregon, where physician assisted suicide has been legal since 1997. While the suicide rate was on the decline in the state in the 90s, almost fifteen years later Oregon has a suicide rate that is 35% higher than the national average and it keeps climbing. There were 566 suicides in 2008, 641 in 2009, and 670 in 2010. Is it possible that saying suicide is a permissible and socially acceptable way to end one’s life for one reason helps make suicide overall a more accepted and widely used solution to all of life’s problems?

Which leads to another question: what is the criteria that would allow someone to end their life and how do we know this criteria will not expand, and the methods change until we have slid down the slippery slope of assisted suicide to euthanasia? Is it such a leap from helping people to commit suicide to giving doctors or the government the power to decide when people’s lives have lost value or are no longer worth the financial cost? Sound paranoid? Disability rights groups don’t think so. And neither do the people in Oregon who received letters from their government insurance telling them they would not pay for costly drugs to lengthen their life but they would be willing to pay for them to kill themselves.

There is also the problem of people killing themselves because they feel pressured to do so. 4% of those who have participated in state sponsored suicide in Oregon gave financial reasons as their primary purpose for killing themselves. We are one of the richest countries in the world and our government is helping citizens to kill themselves because they are a financial burden for their families. What kind of message does this send to our society about the value and dignity of human life?

Others will no doubt receive a misdiagnosis, the doctor may tell a patient they have very little time to live when in reality they have many years left. People will certainly die under the misconception that they have very little time to live and in the stress and sadness of what they do not know is a misdiagnosis, they will choose to die rather than live.

The practical arguments against assisted suicide go on and on.

But, aside from all of the very serious practical issues that laws like these can give rise to in a society, for me there is a more fundamental point of concern at hand.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi:

To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves – these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.

Of course, it is part of our duty as Christians to alleviate suffering in the world and to combat injustice. However, our modern society takes this truth and runs too far, wanting to eliminate any kind of physical and psychological pain at any cost. We lose sight of what is ethical in the blind scramble to avoid pain. Abortion is acceptable because we cannot force a woman to endure the suffering of bringing a baby to term. Assisted suicide is acceptable because we must not allow anyone to go through the pain of losing autonomy or enduring chronic pain. In saying this, I am not diminishing the pain that people experience in these situations, I am simply saying that as a society, we cannot compromise what we know to be right and wrong to take away another’s pain – no matter how much we would like to.

So this is the most tragic element of this trend of thought in our society that is evident in initiatives like this. When we lose a sense of our humanity, we begin to lose a sense of what makes us more fully human. God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to make the evil of suffering, a vehicle for grace, beauty and transformation in our lives. If we, as a society, do all that we can to avoid suffering, we may avoid pain but we also avoid the opportunity to grow more deeply in the school of love. Some might think this is useless if a person’s life is going to end anyway, but so much transformation can happen in one minute, one hour, one day. We never know what we are cutting short by choosing the hour of our death.

So, let us fight this culture of death. Let us be prophets of the dignity and beauty of human life in all of its stages, the beginning and the very end.

Please spread the word about this ballot initiative in Massachusetts.  If you know any MA voters, please share information with them. Visit this site set up by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. Also – discuss with friends and family because we can count on initiatives like this coming to other states. And most importantly, please pray that this law is not passed in the state of Massachusetts this November.

UPDATE 11/2012: Thanks be to God, this initiative in MA was narrowly defeated in the recent election. Please continue to pray for this issue and for the people who choose to take their lives when diagnosed with a terminal illness.