In signing the assisted suicide bill passed by the California legislature last month, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement explaining his decision in personal terms. “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” he wrote. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Brown, a Catholic who spent several years in a Jesuit seminary, thus rejected the position of his church, contained in articles 2280-2283 of the 1997 Catechism. That position is neither irrational nor inhumane. Indeed, Article 2283 declares, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” And Article 2283 asserts that those who take their own lives can still be saved.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has been the foremost opponent of assisted suicide legislation around the country, The question is why, like Brown, most Catholics support it (along with the large majority of other Americans). In a just released Field poll, 55 percent of Catholic Californians favored the law — fewer than the 65 percent of the population as a whole but still a substantial majority. Such support is nothing new.
Most people, it seems, would like the option to escape the kind of suffering that the end of life may impose, for their loved ones as well as for themselves. They see a permissible moral continuum from “do not resuscitate” to “refuse life-sustaining treatment” to palliative care to permitting the terminally ill to starve themselves to death. In an age when machines can prolong life in ways once unimaginable, the need to exert one’s will when it comes to dying now appears both necessary and normal.
There are, to be sure, theological arguments against suicide, assisted and otherwise. Catholicism sees it as violating the doctrine that we are stewards rather than owners “of the life God has entrusted to us.” But such teachings cannot be used in a secular civil polity like ours. Instead, the the Church must argue that assisted suicide is bad public policy that leads to unwanted and unnecessary deaths.
Thus far there’s no evidence that citizens in jurisdictions where it is legal have come to see it that way.