Home Opinion The late Father Leonard Klein in 2011: ‘Physician-assisted suicide flows from deeply...

The late Father Leonard Klein in 2011: ‘Physician-assisted suicide flows from deeply flawed understanding of humanity’

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The late Father Leonard Klein.

The late Father Leonard R. Klein was director of Pro Life Activities for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter and pastor at St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception churches in Wilmington. He died in 2019. He wrote this opinion piece in 2011.

The myth of autonomy is one of the controlling ideas of our time. Many of us imagine that our lives have meaning and value insofar as we are able to choose and control all that affects us. This is a self-deception. No such control is possible. Nor is it desirable. We cannot live by selecting from an infinite menu of choices; that would drive us insane. Most aspects of our reality are given to us and cannot be chosen, including the fact that we live in a time when many people imagine that absolute autonomy is both possible and good.

Nowhere does this myth come to more powerful expression than in the assisted suicide movement. We stand in awe and fear before the mystery of death, the threat of extinction. Death presses upon us the ultimate question of the meaning and purpose of our lives. The mystery of suffering and death lies at the heart of all religion and serious philosophy.

Death is the final contradiction of the myth of autonomy. It will come, and our choice in the matter is quite limited. Still, many are tempted by the illusion that the final gasp of autonomy can be exercised by controlling the time and nature of our death. So there has arisen the demand for physician-assisted suicide. In the end, some imagine, we can show even death who is boss.

The myth of autonomy and unrestricted choice overlooks the fundamental reality that we cannot be human alone. All that makes us human comes from our interaction with others. The freedoms we legitimately exercise are exercised within the limits and the possibilities given to us by the human community we inhabit. And so the question should not be whether people have a right to physician-assisted suicide. The question should be what do we owe the suffering and dying members of our community.

What we owe them is accompaniment, palliative care and human love – not killing. It is not a matter of refusing to accept death when it comes or of using every imaginable means to stave off death. It is a matter of valuing vulnerable human life too much to destroy it.

The recent death of Dr. Jack Kervorkian has brought the issue of physician-assisted suicide once again to the fore. The man’s career should be a warning against his ideas, not an argument for them. The friendliest treatments of his career offer a picture of a strange, isolated individual obsessed with death. In an interview with TV doctor Sanjay Gupta last year he said that the single worst moment of his life was the moment he was born. Such a sad individual is scarcely a trustworthy guide on ultimate questions.

It seems that he could give no value to life other than to control its end, although ironically enough he himself died naturally. In the end the great advocate of control lost control, as we all must.

The assisted suicide movement is a morally and humanly bad idea. Like every bad idea it is also a slippery slope. Making doctors killers is a dangerous move, if not outright crazy. The reports from the Netherlands, where the practice has long been sanctioned, are frightening. There are anecdotal accounts of old people fearing to go to the hospital lest they be terminated. They have good reason; statistics gathered in that country suggest that a significant percentage of doctors have taken it on themselves to terminate the lives of patients. There has been serious discussion of allowing the depressed – including even teenagers – to avail themselves of this so-called right. When a wrong is made a right, bad consequences are inevitable.

The assisted suicide movement, therefore, needs to be seen as a direct threat to individuals and the community not as some new civil right. It flows from a deeply flawed understanding of our humanity and has led already to grotesque consequences. A significant percentage of Dr. Kervorkian’s patients had no terminal condition. And in the end one wonders how many of them had anything like a capacity for free choice. The notion of controlling death is an illusion. We cannot take death by the throat and control it. The terminally ill do not need killing; they need care.