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Heather N. Hamtil
Originally featured in the July 1997 issue of The Angelus magazine.

To me, as a graduate in the study of Human Biology, life and its processes have always been a source of fascination, especially in noting the organization and goodness of the Creator in the vast variety of organisms. Studying the most detailed organization and activity within the cell, the smallest unit of life, to the extensive analysis of complexly designed creatures, one is able to see the Master and Author of Life clearly with the eye and the intellect, knowing that even the most intelligent of men cannot create a simple cell that will thrive, replicate, gain nourishment, grow, reproduce and eventually suffer death. These processes of nourishment, growth, reproduction and death are the markers of life, the defining principles learned in basic biology courses.

Why then is life, its beginning and its end, such a mystery to much of mankind? The most educated scientists are unable to identify these events in God’s creatures, particularly in man, because they do not understand life, its value or its purpose. To these men who seek to become authors of life themselves, God has denied them the understanding and light to comprehend that which is basic to men of faith.

To know, to love and to serve God in this world are the activities that give us the purpose of our lives and make us aware of our life’s value, dedicated to God, while it is the eternal soul that gives life’s essence. It is this knowledge of purpose and value of life that confers upon us perseverance through the joys and trials that life presents, in order to gain that eternal happiness with God in heaven one day, for the day of days, eternity.

It is because man does not understand his reason for being that he does not understand what he is meant to do and what he is to become.

Because of the opportunity to strive towards sanctity and salvation, life is important to us. In fact, because death ends the struggles of life, life is our only opportunity to gain eternal beatitude by making proper use of the temporal happiness, prosperity, progress and failures met with in life (Beck, 1953).

It may seem strange to discuss a man by the name of Jack Kevorkian in this issue on Life. He is a man who is deemed "doctor" by many, yet, under the guise of compassion and liberality of being, he is a doctor who does not work to restore health to the individual but rather advocates "assisted suicide," working to help "right to die" groups who take individual freedom to the utmost extreme. He is like-minded with the modern philosophers who explain their view on suicide as the following:

Suicide is a liberty right and assistance is morally legitimate...should be legally permitted whenever requested by competent persons exercising that right.

They consider their lives as their own and that they can choose and arrange their own deaths (Walzer, 1997).

The fact is, fellow Catholics, this man, and those who share his philosophy of life [death] will affect us all and the medical care that will be available in the future. Consequently, a need exists for every person to know the Catholic viewpoint of life in regards to the duties Catholics have towards themselves and others. Through this understanding of the purpose of life, beyond the basic concept learned in elementary catechism, one will be able to protect himself, his family and society from these attacks on the sacredness of life.

Examining the "mental illness" of society caused by its obsessive materialism, compulsive self-satisfaction and disordered spirit [soul], the view and value of life, and therefore death, is macabre to the average person. Life is seen as an opportunity to excel in temporal euphoria, intellectually, financially, emotionally, sensually and physically. When this "euphoria" ends through tragedy, or an event perceived as such, the purpose of life exists no more and suicide, direct or indirect, appears as an agreeable solution to what was once known and recognized as "suffering."

In Sheed’s A Map of Life, it is stated that ordinary observation of lives shows that suffering may work in two ways: 1) it may be good for the sufferer by aiding character development and maturity, and 2) it may be a test. Suffering that comes with life is either curable or incurable. Suffering that is incurable must be endured. Knowing that not every man must endure the same suffering, no man is allowed by God to be afflicted with more than he can withstand, with God’s grace. The relief of suffering is one of the noblest expressions of the Christian law of love of neighbor; however, it must be within the limits of God’s law (Sheed, 1994).

Misinterpretations of the law of love of neighbor have been used by Kevorkian and 19 others as explanations of and reasons for helping one to enter death by human designs. In many cases, Kevorkian offered to release patients from terminal pain (The Economist, 1997). Kevorkian’s "humanitarian concerns" have been bizarre since the early days of his medical instruction. He has had a fascination with death and spent much time photographing the eyes of dying patients–to determine the moment of death. He described his studies as interesting. He considers the list of possible candidates for his patients not just those who are "terminally ill," but people who have had "severe trauma" or "intense anxiety." In fact, the only necessary factor to qualify one for his "treatment" is that the life quality has to be nil (Betzold, 1997). Kevorkian champions a "global system of death on demand" run by doctors who can operate without governmental or ethical supervision or intervention (Betzold, 1997).

Journalists are facilitating and legitimizing his cause by referring to him as "doctor" and omitting the fact that his Michigan medical license was withdrawn in 1991. They fail to mention that his only "prescriptions" are poisons. Of course, his customers have no complaints, even though they are never cured. Rather, these "patients" are remedied as they are brought to their home, six feet under (Betzold, 1997).

Anyone who is employed in the medical profession contracts a special relationship and duty with the patient. In fact, no doctor has any jurisdiction whatsoever over the life of his patient, but instead has the very serious obligation to help his patient regain health, if possible. It is the sole purpose of the employment contract between the physician and the patient. Not only is he supposed to help the patient to health, he is obliged to do so actively, with as little danger, pain and discomfort to the patient as possible (Beck, 1953). The ancient Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians binds them likewise in that it states that a physician must:

...neither give a deadly drug to anybody, if asked for it, nor make a suggestion to this effect (Emanuel, 1997).

Studies, too, have shown that those for whom the "right to die" cause has been developed, are the least likely to want to "take advantage" of the benefits. A recent study of cancer patients conducted in Boston revealed that those with pain are more likely than others to oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. They are also more likely to prefer and to request a change in doctors if their attending physician indicated that he or she had performed physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia (Emanuel, 1997). Pain has not been a primary motivator in those who have sought their solution to life’s problems through such means as promoted and practiced by Kevorkian. Leading factors have been perceived loss of dignity, fear of loss of control, the thought of being a burden to someone else, depression, and hopelessness (Emanuel, 1997). This "medicide" is a camouflage for violence.

Catholics distinguish between killing and letting die. It is morally forbidden to initiate deliberately a new lethal process consciously intended to precipitate death, whether done by patients themselves or with the help from a physician or by a physician at the request of a patient (Bresnahan, 1997). It is permissible to allow one to die naturally. Life, even in its final stages and perhaps spent in intense suffering, must be accompanied by nourishment, as possible, water, and, if necessary, relief from pain, as much as possible. (See article by Fr. Iscara, To Live and Let Die, p.4.)

Every sin brings its own suffering, and the social sin that one day our courts may commit by legal endorsement of "medicide" will bring a plethora of complications to every individual. Legal endorsement that presents assisted suicide as an optional treatment for the suffering and the dying is a threat to the Catholic, faith-inspired moral practices in caring for the dying. Such endorsement will only open the door to more formidable consequences, as if the acceptance and promotion of assisted suicide were not enough.

Consider the following possible consequences. Patients will need to be informed about their "choices" by every doctor; the doctors must be free to recommend to their patients or the families urged to consider such an option to pain and suffering. Assisted suicide will transform the hospital and places of care into houses of threatened violence and moral danger. Nurses and doctors will be exposed to the dangers of guilty cooperation, counsel or participation (Bresnahan, 1997).

Assisted suicide and its proposal must date far back because St. Augustine emphatically stated:

It is never licit to kill another: Even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against the bonds of the body and longing to be released- nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer able to live (Bates and O’Keefe, 1997).

Life is the gift of God, and it is the work of God, whereas sin is the work of man. Through sin, man has rejected God’s gift of life in exchange for death. This exchange was made with Original Sin, and all mankind bears its mark and must suffer its consequences; pain and death being two of them.

We are instructed to love God above all things and are commanded to love ourselves. In loving ourselves, we are likewise commanded to love our neighbors —as we love ourselves —for the image in which we were made is that of God, and our redemption and that of our neighbor’s is in the same blood of Christ.

By the fifth Commandment almighty God forbids the destruction of life, be it our own, or that of our neighbor. Respect towards life is even seen and emphasized in the administration and the reception of the sacraments. Many of the ceremonies of the sacraments are performed upon the body, full of meaning, inspiring all with the respect owed to the body, the temple of the Holy Ghost. Life and health of the body are of great importance for the life of the soul, and therefore our own eternal salvation; we are bound to take the precautions necessary for the preservation of our health and of our own life. We are reminded in Ecclesiates (30:16), that health is worth more to us than vast riches and this is explained by the fact that the longer we keep our health and our life, the more treasures we can lay up for eternity (Clarke and Spirago, 1899).

We know, too, that health endures not forever, for anyone, for in Genesis (6:3) we read:

The Spirit of God does not remain in a man forever, because he is flesh.

This knowledge that life must end one day for each one of us imposes upon us a special obligation to do nothing that tends to destroy the health or life of ourselves or others.

A great danger indeed will be the result of philosophies that adopt views such as the "right to die" or "assisted suicides" as humanitarian because of the lives that will be lost by such philosophy. The greatest danger has yet to be discussed. Under the guise of good, many will be deceived to believe in this humanitarian option to sickness and pain, especially when dealing with loved ones afflicted in this manner. This great deception will be the occasion of deaths for innumerable souls because of the scandal that will result through the temptation to accept this evil as a good, holy, option to suffering (p.386).

St. Pachomius posed the same questions we have today and unity with the Cross is still the answer:

How can you wish to be freed from your sufferings? Do you not yet know that no mortification is so pleasing to God as the joyful, or at least patient acceptance of the crosses He imposes?...but suffering in union with our suffering Lord and Savior is incomparably better (Johnston, 1986).


"Art of Death," The Economist, vol. 343, n. 8019 (May 31, 1997).

Bates, Tom and Mark O’Keefe. "Suicide Reaches the Supreme Court." National Catholic Reporter, vol.33, n.11 (January 17, 1997), p.5.

Beck, Sister Mary Berenice, O.S.F., R.N., Ph.D. Handmaid of the Divine Physician: The Religious Care of the Sick and the Dying. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1952.

Betzold, Michael. "The Selling of Doctor Death: How Jack Kevorkian Became a National Hero." The New Republic, vol.216, n.21 (May 26, 1997), p.22.

Bresnahan, James F. "Killing vs. Letting Die: A Moral Distinction Before the Courts." America, vol.176, n.3. (February 1, 1997), p.8.

Clarke, S. J., Rev. Richard F., and Rev. Francis Spirago. The Catechism Explained. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1899.

Emanuel, Ezekial. "Whose Right to Die? America Should Think Again Before Pressing Ahead with the Legalization of Physician-assisted Suicide and Voluntary Euthanasia." The Atlantic Monthly, vol.270, n.3 (March 1997), p.73.

Johnston, Francis W. The Voices of the Saints. Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1986.

Sheed, Frank. The Map of Life. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994.

Walzer, Michael. "Feed the Face." The New Republic, vol.216, n.23 (June 9, 1997), p.29. © 2013                    home                    contact