Recommended for high school
Use this high school lesson in a religion, ethics, or philosophy class. This lesson is best used after students have completed Euthanasia: An Introduction. Students should already understand the definitions of euthanasia, assisted suicide, mercy killing, death with dignity, and what the Church teaches about euthanasia.
In Euthanasia: An Introduction, students compared and contrasted the cases of two terminally ill women with the case of one healthy woman and learned the differences between active and passive euthanasia. In this lesson, students will focus on case studies in which healthy patients decide to kill themselves via physician-assisted suicide. Students will then discuss how to respond to these kinds of situations in society.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
When we think of euthanasia, we often think of it being used against people who are not healthy—people who are nearing the end of their lives either because of age or illness. But euthanasia is the act of killing a person under the pretense of ending that person’s suffering. Euthanasia is “an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated.” (Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia)
Euthanasia: An Introduction discusses the many different terms used to describe euthanasia, such as “death with dignity” or “mercy killing,” and how the right-to-die movement uses these terms to disguise euthanasia from what it really is—the murder of a human being. For an understanding of the difference between euthanasia by action and euthanasia by omission, see Euthanasia: An Introduction page 9.
In our world, people hate suffering. Often, the right-to-die movement uses the argument of “alleviating suffering” in order to convince us that euthanasia is a good thing. But the problem with this thinking is that you can’t truly eliminate a person’s suffering by eliminating the person. Whether or not someone is terminally ill, his life still has meaning and value. In this lesson, we will discuss assisted suicide in cases in which the person is not terminally ill or in danger of death, but rather suffers from a severe disability.
Suicide is the taking of one’s own life and is a violation of the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Our lives are a gift from God—a sacred gift that we must guard and protect:
Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of (CCC 2280).
As the Creator, God alone has the right to determine when a person’s life begins and ends. When a person commits suicide, that person not only rejects God’s gift of life, but also God Himself. Suicide is neither natural nor right because it “contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life” (CCC 2281). Every person is created by God for a special purpose. If you’re still alive, that means you have not finished the special mission or vocation to which God is calling you.
Suicide does not affect just one person. Suicide “offends the love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations” (CCC 2281). Someone who commits suicide deeply wounds the human family and prevents other people from expressing their love, solidarity, and compassion for the suffering person.
Assisted suicide is the taking of one’s life with the compliance and help of another person. Disguised as compassionate care, assisted suicide takes the life of a person with disabilities, severe depression, or other sufferings. Instead of offering comfort for the suffering person, assisted suicide strikes at the core of the solidarity between human beings and eliminates the person rather than alleviates his suffering.
“To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested” (Evangelium Vitae, paragraph 66).
Murder, through suicide or assisted suicide, is a grave evil and cannot ever be justified. Compassion consists in walking with the suffering person through his illness, comforting him, easing his pain, and attending to both his physical and spiritual needs. Compassionate care sees the value of suffering—that through our suffering, we can unite ourselves to Christ on the cross and offer up our pain. Christ’s sacrifice gives meaning to suffering. Pain is not pointless. Rather, it is a chance for us to see the plan of God and to rejoice at the thought of heaven as our final home.
Disabilities and suffering are also meant for the sanctification of the family and friends of the person. In the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. Jesus’ disciples ask Him if the cause of the man’s disability was his own sin or the sin of his parents—following the beliefs of the time that pain and suffering were punishments from God for sin. But Jesus corrects them: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3). Suffering is not cast on a person by a vengeful God as punishment for sin. Rather, suffering becomes an opportunity for that person and those around him to seek the glory of God through heroic sacrifice and solidarity, not death.
The right-to-die movement often uses the term “quality of life” to describe a suicide-minded patient’s motivation to choose physician-assisted suicide. If a person believes that he has a poor quality of life, he feels his life is not worth living because of a disability, illness, or mental condition. This phrase cheapens a person’s life, taking away the inherent dignity we all have. To the culture of death, a person’s life is wasted if he will never walk again, play sports, use the bathroom by himself, or even hold a simple conversation.
We must remember that every single person’s life has value, whether or not he is able to contribute to society in the way he wants. Being able to walk, play sports, or use the bathroom unassisted does not give our lives more value than a person who cannot do those things because of a disability. Relying on others does not reduce the value of our lives. Babies, for instance, need help with everything they do from the moment they are created. Preborn babies rely on their mothers to help them grow.
We are continually inspired by the stories of disabled people who overcame certain aspects of their disabilities. Their stories inspire us to do bigger and better things than we ourselves thought capable. However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that their lives didn’t have value or purpose before they were able to overcome incredible odds.
Some people are never able to overcome their disabilities, but that does not lower their quality of life. Their lives still have inherent value. God has a purpose for them that we don’t always understand. We can learn from their example of patient and heroic suffering. Their lives are an example to us, not only of the value of each human being’s life, but also a sign of the mercy of God.
Each of these case studies can be completed with the entire class. Read the case study aloud. Use the discussion questions provided to stimulate the discussion. After students have answered the question and decided on a proper solution to the problem, read the “Real Life” portion. Each case study should take at least 10-15 minutes to complete.
Fred is a very athletic young man. He enjoys skiing, rock climbing, basketball, and other sports. One day, Fred is hit by a car as he is crossing the street. After the accident, Fred wakes up in a hospital room, unable to move his body. The doctor tells Fred that he has suffered a severe spinal cord injury and that he most likely will never be able to have full control of his arms and legs again.
After months of physical therapy, the doctor’s assessment proves correct. Fred only regains enough movement in one of his hands to be able to push the controls of his electric wheelchair. Stuck at home in his chair, Fred becomes very depressed. Every time he remembers the exciting activities he used to do, Fred realizes that his life will never be the same. Fred will never be able to live without a caregiver. He will never be able to do anything without assistance. He cannot even eat, drink, or use the bathroom without someone else’s help. Because of his injury, he gets sick very easily and constantly fights for his life during bouts of pneumonia.
One day, Fred reads an article about a euthanasia facility in Switzerland that helps people who are not terminally ill to commit suicide. For Fred, ending his horrible life in a way that he chooses seems like the best option for him. He decides to travel to Switzerland and asks a few of his family and friends to join him in his final moments.
You are one of Fred’s closest friends, and he asks you to be there when he ends his life. You are shocked, not only because Fred has never discussed suicide with you, but also because you feel uncomfortable about watching his suicide.
What can you do?
1. Is it ok for you to join Fred in Switzerland?
Participating in, or condoning, suicide is not only lacking in compassion for Fred, it is also immoral. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2277 and 2282.
2. As Fred’s friend, what should you do to support him?
Allowing a friend to commit suicide is not an offer of support. Suicide, no matter what form it takes, is a plea for help. Fred doesn’t realize that his life has value. He is depressed. He can’t see what God has in store for him down the road. He is also adjusting to a new way of life—a much more difficult one than his life before the accident.
As Fred’s friend, you can help show him that his life does have value. He might push your help aside, but you should not stop trying—even in his last moments. Encouraging words, words of affirmation, and time spent with him show Fred you care about how he feels and that you will support him in his new life.
3. How would you frame your argument to Fred to convince him not to go through with his suicide?
This is a difficult question to answer. Try to help him see the value in his life and show him that committing suicide is not the best solution. Here are some points for you to remember as you think about what to say:
When Henry Evans was 40 years old, an undiagnosed birth defect caused a stroke-like episode, leaving him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak. Being able to move only his neck and one finger, Henry felt trapped in his body and unable to communicate with his family. Using his blinking eyes and a communication board to talk to his wife Jane, Henry begged her to allow him to commit suicide.
For three years, Jane refused. “There is a reason God left you with your mind, and you have life. . . . Those are two incredible gifts that we take for granted every day. The hardest thing you have to do is figure out why you’re left here on Earth. You have a purpose.”
One day, Henry saw a documentary on television about using robots to help scientists in a laboratory. He immediately thought of the potential for using robots to help people like him with severe disabilities. Henry wrote an e-mail to Georgia Tech professor Charles Kemp and together they began to collaborate on robotic technology, founding Robots for Humanity.
With the use of robots, Henry can scratch an itch on his face by himself, or even shave his beard. Using a head tracker, Henry can type on a computer and even control a robot remotely from his home in California. Robots for Humanity has created flying drones, museum robots, and other devices that allow homebound persons to explore the world around them from the comfort of their own homes.
Because of his disability, Henry Evans has launched a new field of technology that has the potential for thousands of people to see the value of their lives. If Henry had committed suicide like he wanted to at the beginning of his paralysis, he would never have founded Robots for Humanity.
Hannah is one of your best friends. She laughs all the time, talks nonstop, and has a way of making other people feel special. Hannah is beautiful, athletic, and talented. One day, Hannah is severely injured in a diving accident, which leaves her completely paralyzed. After months of physical therapy, Hannah makes little progress. She becomes increasingly depressed and upset about her new condition.
One day, she confides her plan to you. Hannah has decided to end her life by taking poisonous drugs through her IV at the hospital. Her cousin is in nursing school and knows how to get the drugs and put them into Hannah’s IV. Hannah tells you that you are her best friend and the only person that she could trust to help her in her hour of need. She asks you to stand by the door of her hospital room to make sure no one comes into the room while her cousin switches the IV.
When you tell her that you feel uncomfortable about her decision, Hannah becomes upset and begs you to help her. She says that her life has become unbearable and that she will commit suicide whether or not you decide to help her.
What can you do?
1. Can you morally do what Hannah is asking you do to?
No, you cannot. To comply with Hannah’s request would be to assist her in committing suicide. You would be just as guilty of murder as if you killed Hannah yourself. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2282 and Evangelium Vitae paragraph 66.
2. Would it be a moral choice for you to walk away from this situation?
While you cannot morally help Hannah with her plan, you also cannot simply walk away and let her die without trying to help her. Your job is to support Hannah and help her see that her life has value. God could have taken her life in the diving accident, but He didn’t. That means Hannah’s life still has purpose and meaning, even with her new disabilities.
3. On what should Hannah focus?
Instead of remembering everything that she was once able to do and now cannot do because of the accident, Hannah should focus on strengthening the talents she still has. Through the long and tough road of physical therapy, Hannah will discover what muscles she still has and how much movement she retains in her arms, fingers, and neck.
4. What should you do for Hannah?
As a friend, you must support Hannah through this difficult time. Visit her often, try to lift her spirits, and help her develop her talents. It can be easy to forget about a friend because you are unable to enjoy time together as you used to. Your compassion and care for Hannah in her time of need will strengthen your friendship.
Jill Kinmont Boothe was an 18-year-old champion slalom skier with high hopes for the 1956 Olympics. Jill had just been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated when she skidded off a high speed ski slope during a competition and crashed into a tree. The accident left her paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Confined to a wheelchair and without the full use of her hands, Jill did not give up hope of her future. With the help of physical therapy, Jill regained some use of her arms and learned how to write, type, and paint using a special hand brace. She attended UCLA, studying English and German. At first, her ambition was to stay involved with skiing through owning a ski shop in California. But when Jill took a part-time teaching job, she fell in love with education and tried to switch her major.
The school of education at UCLA rejected her application to earn a teaching certificate because they thought that she was “unemployable.” Jill later received her teaching certificate from the University of Washington. For the next 35 years, Jill taught children with disabilities and devoted much of her retirement to painting watercolor landscapes and building a scholarship fund for Native American students in her community. Jill’s life was not easy, but through her determination she was able to help people in her community. Jill married John Boothe in 1976. She died in 2012 at the age of 75.