The so-called “right to die” has been in the news lately. The culture of our sinful secular society has taken up a new push to legalize and glorify euthanasia. The spearhead of this attack on morality is the case of Brittany Maynard, who is terminally-ill with inoperable brain cancer. Modern culture likes to use attractive young women in news stories. A missing young attractive woman in her 20’s is a big news story; a missing older black man does not make the news at all. So Brittany ends up (literally) on the cover of People magazine, while an elderly person who is terminally-ill and considering euthanasia does not. She is also a newly-wed, which makes her story more compelling, on the level of emotion. The culture is using attractiveness, youth, and emotion to convince the nation to approve of grave sin.
In terms of Catholic moral teaching, euthanasia is a type of murder. It is murder for the purpose of relieving all suffering. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.” (Evangelium Vitae 65). Let’s analyze this definition in terms of the three fonts of morality, as taught by Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor.
First Font: intention, the intended end or purpose chosen by the person who acts
Second Font: moral object, the end, in terms of morality, that is inherent to the intentionally-chosen act
Third Font: circumstances, the good and bad consequences of the act, in so far as these can be reasonably anticipated at the time the act is chosen.
The will is involved in all three fonts: choosing an end or purpose, choosing an act, and choosing to act with knowledge of the good and bad consequences. So when John Paul writes “of itself and by intention”, which font is he referencing? In this case, it is the second font, the moral object. An act with an evil moral object is termed intrinsically evil, because the act is immoral, in and of itself, by its very nature. Every intrinsically evil act is inherently directed toward an evil end (the evil moral object). In the case of euthanasia, the moral object is the same as for all types of murder: the deprivation of life from an innocent human being. Every intrinsically evil act must be intentionally chosen (deliberately chosen, voluntarily chosen) to be a sin. A person who accidentally dies by taking the wrong combination of medicines does not commit euthanasia or suicide. The choice must be deliberate.
However, the necessity for any intrinsically evil act to be intentionally chosen does not imply that the same evil act can become moral if it is chosen with a good intention in mind. The purpose for which the act is chosen is in the first font; the moral object is in the second font. One or two good fonts cannot change the remaining font(s) from evil to good. An evil deed done with a good intention (i.e. for a good purpose) is still evil.
The first font of euthanasia is “the purpose of eliminating all suffering.” This intended end is good. However, I would still say that the first font in this act is bad because one intention in the human person can include both the means and the end. In euthanasia, the person intends to achieve a good end (relieving suffering) by an evil means (killing an innocent). So the intention is corrupted by the intended means.
However, in sinful secular society, what passes for euthanasia often has no good end; the act does not propose to relieve suffering. Sometimes euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is done when the person is not suffering. They consider that a person has a “right to die” regardless of the motivation or purpose of the act. And society tends to push persons toward this type of death merely because they are elderly or handicapped, or even if they have an illness that is not terminal. In such cases, the act is not strictly speaking euthanasia, but it is still a type of murder because it still has the same evil moral object.
Murder of any type (abortion, homicide, suicide, euthanasia) is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. A good purpose or intention does not make the intrinsically evil act moral. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope Saint John Paul II infallibly condemned murder, abortion, and euthanasia:
“I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (Evangelium Vitae 65)
And a grave sin cannot be a moral right or human right.
So what will happen in society when euthanasia or suicide or assisted-suicide (however it might be termed) becomes legal? There are many gravely harmful consequences.
We are already seeing what happens when same-sex marriage is declared a right by society. Those faithful Christians who disagree lose their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. The claim is made that any expression of disagreement with this new position taken by society on marriage is hate speech, is a violation of human rights, etc. The culture does not tolerate disagreement with what the culture has decided is a right. And if any person or group provides services for weddings, they can be compelled under threat of boycotts, fines, and jail time to provide those services, against their conscience.
The same type of injustice against Christians could occur if euthanasia becomes codified in law as a right. We could lose our right to teach the traditional Christian view against all forms of murder. A physician who refuses to provide the service of helping to murder his patients could face fines or jail time. This consequence may seem far-fetched, but in light of the persecution and prosecution of persons who refuse services to same-sex marriages, it is entirely plausible.
Other bad consequences would ensue if euthanasia become legal nationwide. The harm done to the sense of morality of the people, especially the young, is inestimable. Youths who grow up in a society in which grave sins are called rights easily lose their way; they will have great difficulty understanding right from wrong. And the same can be said for many adults. Unfortunately, a large portion of the adult population has no foundation for understanding right from wrong other than what is accepted or rejected by culture and law.
Then, too, euthanasia widely-practiced tends to eliminate from society not only the extreme cases (terminally ill persons suffering greatly), but anyone rejected by the culture: the elderly, the handicapped, those with chronic (but not terminal) illnesses. Brittany Maynard is young and attractive, so she becomes the poster-child for the culture of death. But the goal of that culture is to remove from society all who are not young, not attractive, not favored by the culture.
Already, in Great Britain, a particularly perverse form of “euthanasia” has been widely used to murder patients, many of whom were not terminally ill. The goal was not to relieve suffering, but to save money. See my post: 130,000 Patients Euthanized a Year. When government takes control of healthcare, decisions are often made with the goal of reducing costs, regardless of the harm to patients.
When euthanasia is legal, the culture tends to promote suicide and physician-assisted suicide as a right and as a good choice. The result is many more persons dying than if this type of act were illegal. When euthanasia is illegal, some persons might still choose suicide, but at least the health care system and the culture will tend to discourage this sin. Making an act illegal does not absolutely prevent anyone from committing that act. But it does discourage the act and make it more difficult to choose. And that is what we want in a culture of life, in a nation that ought to help its citizens live well, rather than push them towards murder and death.