by Mark Latkovic, S.T.D.
Forty-six years ago this July, Pope Paul VI issued his most controversial and, as it turned out, his last, yet most enduring encyclical. I believe that Humanae vitae is a priceless gift to the (post) modern world. In it, Venerable Paul VI, as we know, reaffirmed the 2,000-years-old Catholic teaching on the immorality of contraception. The Pope taught that conjugal love, and indeed “each and every marital act” must remain open “to the procreation of human life” (11).
But many might well ask: “What does an encyclical upholding the traditional understanding of married love, procreation, and sexuality have to do with our current battles over physician-assisted suicide and its legalization?”
I would argue that both contraception and physician-assisted suicide involve a radical disrespect for the inherent dignity of human life – even if it’s more obvious with the latter practice. Contraception says No to new human life in its “entry,” while physician-assisted suicide says No to human life in its “exit.” If one is willing to act against God’s plan for how a new life comes into the world, then there is nothing to stop one from acting against God’s plan for how a life leaves this world.
Hence, I do not think it a mere coincidence that just one year before the promulgation ofHumanae vitae, we had the beginnings of the first so-called “right to die” documents, such as the “Living Will,” sponsored by the Euthanasia Society of America.
Although the modern world likes to separate our beliefs and practices with respect to the “beginning-of-life” from those at the “end-of-life,” there is, in fact, as with love and procreation, an “inseparable connection” (cf. Humanae vitae, 12). One’s attitudes and actions with respect to life in its earliest stages are often a good barometer of one’s attitudes and actions with respect to life in its later and final stages.
If individuals have a “right” to control whether they procreate and then accept new human life, so too (following this logic) must they have a “right” to control how and when they die. Indeed, federal court decisions supporting assisted suicide, such as the Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, a 1996 case, have cited the reasoning of Roe v. Wade’s affirmation of a women’s “right” to procure an abortion. “[W]e believe the cases from Pierce through Roe provide strong general support for our conclusion that a liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one’s death is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Thus, both issues force us to confront the nature and limits of our dominion over human life. For just as the task of transmitting human life is invested with both objective values and personal choices (cf. Humanae Vitae, 10), so too is the task of caring for life in-its-transition from this life to the next life.
However, as Pope Paul VI reminded us in Humanae vitae, man does not have absolute dominion over either his procreative capacities or over his body as a whole (cf. 13). As stewards of the life that God has given each of us, our claims to do whatever we want with our own lives – whether in generation or in geriatrics – are limited. Yet, in the push for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, our desire for absolute dominion is, sadly, all too evident.
We are faced with two contrasting (and competing) “ethics” or “anthropologies,” as the philosophers like to say. Those in the “right to die” movement view human bodily life as something I possess, to do with as I see fit when my life becomes a “burden” due to defect or disease. Thus, they speak of a person’s “quality of life.”
Those of us who oppose physician-assisted suicide – call us the “people of life” movement – view human bodily life as something that shares in my dignity as a person; it is an integral aspect of who I am. This dignity can never be lessened or lost, even in the face of defect or disease. Nor must it ever be intentionally harmed in any way. Thus, we speak of the “sanctity of human life.”
Although President Ronald Reagan was addressing the abortion crisis, the question he posed in 1983 on the tenth anniversary of Roe v. Wade in his Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, can easily be applied to our present day assisted-suicide crisis. He argued that the question is no longer “when human life begins” – no, modern embryology took care of that! – but “What is the value of human life?
Unfortunately, our society has not been attributing much value to either end of the life-span. Of course, even to use the language of “attributing” or “assigning” value to human life, as many moral philosophers do (e.g., Peter Singer), is to deny that every human being has an intrinsic and inestimable value as an “image of God” in the world. That is, it is to substitute a “quality of life” ethic for a “sanctity of life” ethic.
In my speaking on physician-assisted suicide over the years, especially in a debate with Geoffrey Fieger, the former attorney for the late assisted-suicide “doctor,” Jack Kevorkian, I have seen these two “ethics” or “anthropologies” confront each other head-on, however much might they remain unarticulated, “below the radar” so to speak.