Defying the Death Ethic
Fr. James Thornton

One of the symptoms of a society in the grips of moral crisis is a
tendency to refer to reprehensible acts by soft-sounding euphemisms, by
names that do not directly excite human qualms or agitate scruples and
that evade precise reflection on the reality of certain situations. For
example, in our modern lexicon, abortion is called “freedom of choice,”
sexual libertinage is dubbed “alternative lifestyles,” and certain
forms of genocide-in-slow-motion can be made to seem more acceptable
under the name “family planning.”

Such are the mental tricks and the “word magic” employed to quiet the
normal functioning of our consciences. Sadly, they work on a great many
people for long periods of time. Like certain narcotics, they dull the
moral senses and can eventually blot out such feelings completely.

This being so, let us examine a concept that is very old, that
disappeared from civilized life for almost two millennia, and that has
now begun its return, lifting itself ever higher on the distant
horizon, like a huge, menacing, black cloud. That concept is known as

“Good Death”

The English word euthanasia is derived from the Greek and means,
literally, “good death.” According to its oldest meaning, it signifies
merely the relatively painless, gentle passage of someone from this
life to the next, without necessarily any human inference or
intervention.  Even in the Christian tradition, we sometimes hear the
term “good death” used in the sense that the departed person died at
peace with himself, with his family, and with God.

However, an alternative definition, more in accord with contemporary
usages, generally suggests something quite different: It indicates the
bringing about of the death of a human being, either by suicide or
killing, ostensibly to prevent extreme physical pain or mental anguish. 
Euthanasia, according to the teaching of every traditional Christian
group, is looked upon as suicide or murder, plain and simple, and,
until recently, was universally condemned in all societies whose roots
grew out of Christianity. This teaching holds that a supposedly worthy
end, in this case the termination of pain and suffering, never,
according to traditional moral norms, justifies immoral or unethical

With the rise of revolutionary ideologies in the late 18th century,
Darwinistic philosophies in the following century, and the concomitant
decline in fidelity to Christian teaching, especially among educated
classes, changes in belief regarding the dignity and value of human
life gradually came to be more widely accepted. The full significance
of this change in outlook manifested itself sharply for the first time
almost 60 years ago, in one of the most cultivated nations of Europe —
Germany, the land of Bach, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven.

Early in September 1939, shortly after the opening shots of what would
become the Second World War, Adolf Hitler held an important conference
with key legal and medical officials of the Reich government. Hitler
had decided that, in view of Germany’s desperate need for hospital beds
to accommodate war casualties, a euthanasia program must be undertaken.
The incurably insane, those suffering advanced cases of senility, and
others suffering similar conditions were to be painlessly killed,
opening, in that manner, numerous hospital beds for the war wounded.

In response to Hitler’s conference, the chief medical officer of
Germany in that era, Dr. Leonardo Conti, immediately began a long
series of discussions with legal, medical, and psychiatric experts to
insure that whatever happened was done in accordance with law.
Characteristically, Hitler quickly became impatient at Conti’s delays
and, finally, arbitrarily dictated a secret decree. That document
authorized certain officials to begin at once to “grant those who are
by all human standards incurably ill a merciful death.” Census forms,
seemingly for statistical purposes only, were circulated to doctors
requiring that they list data on all persons with certain incurable
mental and physical debilities. Secret panels of medical experts were
then convened to decide who among the patients would live and who would
die. Many thousands, over the next five years, were thus quietly slain.
But there is more to the story.

The Church Cries Out

Sometime in the middle of 1941, Clemens August Count von Galen, the
Roman Catholic Bishop of Münster, received confidential reports about
what was happening. With great courage, in July of that year, the
Bishop delivered a dramatic, stinging rebuke to the persons responsible
for the euthanasia program, in an open pastoral letter. Some weeks
later he initiated private criminal proceedings in the public courts
against the parties responsible, who at that time were still unknown to
him. This was required, he explained to his flock, by German law. Any
German citizen who had knowledge of a gross violation of criminal law
was bound by that law to report it, and, if necessary, to take action
to bring it to a halt.

Hitler, embarrassed by these shocking disclosures, ordered a halt to
the secret euthanasia operation, but the program continued until
February 1945. After the war, medical doctors, and others who initiated
and took part in this program, were prosecuted and tried before Allied
military tribunals, and a number of the more prominent figures were
hanged for their complicity in these crimes. Ordinary Americans, and
other people of the civilized world, were deeply horrified in those
years by the idea of any government sponsoring such ruthless, immoral

It is a profoundly revelatory fact that the wartime German government
was forced to keep this terrible program a secret from the German
public. Such were the sensibilities of the German people in those years
that even a highly authoritarian regime — indeed a police state — dared
not allow the public to become aware of what was happening. Its panic
over the public disclosures by Bishop von Galen demonstrates that even
the Hitler regime, though it exercised total control of the German
press, radio, and all other forms of information dissemination, as well
as the police and all public education, nonetheless felt constrained by
potential outrage from an aroused public.

Americans, in contrast, do not live in a police state — at least not
yet. They still pride themselves on their maintenance of a system of
self-government, and on an open society with unfettered speech and
independent communications. Americans also take justifiable pride in
the value they have traditionally placed on human life. Life may be
cheap in other places in the world, among other peoples and under other
governmental systems, but innocent life has traditionally been held
dear, and protected, in America.

That remained true until about 25 years ago and the Supreme Court’s Roe
v. Wade decision. Until that time, the sacredness of innocent human
life was shielded by law, but more importantly, it was protected by the
innate decency and high moral standards of the American people, by an
ethos set squarely on the solid foundation of 2,000 years of Christian

Moral Blindness

French historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to these American
attributes when he wrote the following words about the America he
visited in the 19th century: “In the United States the sovereign
authority is religious ... there is no country in the world where the
Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men
than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its usefulness
and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is
powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the
earth.” So it was, and so it remained until liberalism began to eat
away at this wholesome influence.

Some Americans of the 1990s, it would seem, have lost moral direction
to such an extent that not only are they not offended by an idea that
did offend and cause shame to Germans living under the Nazi regime in
the 1940s, but they unabashedly lend support to the idea, even in
public forums. Curiously, many of the justificatory pretexts and
rationalizations expressed so frankly today are essentially identical
to those quietly or clandestinely advanced in the Third Reich: that we
have limited resources that should be expended on the healthy and not
the incurably ill; that the incurably sick are a burden on their
families and on society; that it is merciful deliberately to end
suffering by active intervention — murder in other words; that innocent
human life is not a gift from God, but a condition or state of being
the fitness of which is to be judged by medical or governmental
authorities alone, according to strictly pragmatic criteria.

One thin barrier separating events of 60 years ago in Germany from the
trends of recent decades is the distinction between voluntary and
involuntary euthanasia. Theoretically, the arguments advanced today aim
towards the legalization of voluntary euthanasia only — that is, to
encouraging the notion that those who suffer physically should be
allowed to request assistance from others (usually medical doctors) in
destroying themselves. In contrast, the German decree dispensed death
primarily to persons incapable of making any such decisions about their
condition or of expressing their wishes at all. While we must admit
that this is indeed a distinction, it is a very tenuous one.

Eliminating “Useless Eaters”

British writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote decades ago that
the proponents of euthanasia always begin first by seeking the death of
those who are nuisances to themselves, but inevitably move on to the
next step, seeking death for those who are nuisances to others, once
the first step becomes customary. Let us remember that in a bloated,
bureaucratic welfare state such as ours, where the government assumes a
rapidly expanding role in our lives, where the moral standards have
fallen, and where shrinking resources are stretched ever tighter to
cover perpetually expanding commitments, it is never long before
government is forced to make life and death decisions about “useless
eaters” whose cost of care, in dollars and cents, is quite high.

Anyone who surveys the expansion of government power over the past 40
or 50 years cannot doubt that this is true. Whenever government has
stepped into some facet of our lives, assurances have poured forth that
we citizens need not be concerned, that no expansion of power is
contemplated, and that some benefit or largess will be granted free of
strings and without any obnoxious controls. Beneficence is always the
illusory motive, the grabbing of power and the promotion of evil always
the end products.

And of all power, the power over the life or death of innocents is the
last one that should ever be willingly entrusted to government. Our own
government usurped some of those powers with the Supreme Court decision
on abortion nearly 25 years ago. Yet if liberals and other champions of
big government have their way, that power will be vastly augmented not
by the will of the people or of their elected representatives, but by
means of another High Court decision.

On January 8, 1997, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral
arguments for and against the existence of a constitutionally
guaranteed right of citizens to choose euthanasia, or
physician-assisted suicide.  This case, generated in part by years of
media publicity about people suffering unbearable pain during terminal
illnesses, points to the possibility of a landmark decision, one of
those decisive turning points for the whole nation, as significant as
the rulings about separation of church and state in the ’40s, civil
rights in the ’50s and ’60s, and abortion in the ’70s. Like those
baneful edicts of past years, this latest one, should it come to pass,
will herald a dramatic new chapter in American history, one that
further, and calamitously, devaluates life, and that opens new
possibilities for government intrusion into the most intimate aspects
of our lives. These possibilities frighten many people, most especially
persons who are suffering various debilitating diseases and injuries
and who, despite their difficulties, do not want to die.

Charles Odom, a 34-year-old resident of Mississippi and former Air
Force officer, was injured in an automobile accident in 1984. He
remained in a coma for three months after the accident and to this day
is severely disabled, requiring the use of a wheel chair to move about.
Though his condition may seem daunting to less intrepid men, Odom
remains fiercely independent of outside help. Charles Odom traveled all
the way from his home to the nation’s capital to demonstrate with other
disabled people in front of the Supreme Court building. His blunt
statement to the press about the Supreme Court deliberations is
eloquent in its simplicity: “The worry is that if there’s a right to
assisted suicide, it will be used to get rid of us.” It is easy to
imagine bureaucrats and politicians scoffing at this fear, but a quick
look at reality shows that it is by no means groundless.

“Without Explicit Request”

First, as we have seen, what Mr. Odom speaks of is precisely what has
happened in other countries at other times. But we need not go back 60
years to Nazi Germany to find a chilling example. Current practices in
the Netherlands are enough to give pause to any sensible man or woman. 
Years ago, the Netherlands changed its laws to permit euthanasia in
certain circumstances. At first, physician-assisted suicide for people
terminally ill was all that was allowed. Quickly, it was extended to
the chronically ill, then to those with psychological afflictions, and
finally to those unable to make such decisions at all. In the cold
euphemism of the Dutch medical profession, the last category is known
as “termination of the patient without explicit request” (suggesting
dishonestly, perhaps, that the patient had somehow implicitly requested
it). It is documented that each year Dutch doctors actively cause or
hasten the deaths of 1,000 patients without the patients’ requests. 
Guidelines and safeguards set down by the Dutch government to regulate
euthanasia are routinely ignored, without serious repercussions to the

So, it seems, Charles Odom’s fears are definitely not without
foundation. In a secular society, driven exclusively by utilitarian
considerations, to proceed from physician-assisted suicides to wholly
involuntary killings of patients is a matter of inescapable logic, as
soon as certain underlying premises are accepted — namely, that
innocent life is not a gift from God and that government and medical
authorities may do whatever they like for the “good of society.”

We must now briefly consider the problem of people suffering long
periods of extreme pain. That shibboleth is one that must be dealt with
directly, for it is one of the chief weapons of the pro-euthanasia wing
of the death lobby, just as minuscule numbers of pregnancies allegedly
caused by rape and incest are the constant catchwords of the
pro-abortion wing of that same group. As we have noted, much of the
mass media has encouraged the present drift towards
government-sanctioned killings of patients by medical doctors, through
their sensationalistic exploitation of cases involving people with
terminal illnesses who are suffering great pain. Does that mean, as the
media assumes, that there is a close connection between pain and the
wish to die?

Destroying a Myth

According to Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, associate professor of medicine
and social medicine at Harvard University, writing in the January 7th
issue of the Wall Street Journal, the connection between intense pain
and euthanasia is a myth, fostered by pro-death pressure groups and the
media. As a rule, Dr. Emanuel observes, it is rarely the patient in
severe pain who seeks euthanasia. “Physical pain,” writes Dr. Emanuel,
“plays a very small role in motivating patients’ interest in or
requests for euthanasia.” Most cancer patients suffering unremitting
pain, for example, were more inclined to see euthanasia as unethical.
Those more likely to seek or approve of physician-assisted suicide are
rather those suffering from psychological factors, most especially
extreme forms of depression.

The 1991 Remmelink Report, done in the Netherlands, where
physician-assisted suicide is legal, disclosed that pain was the sole
motivating factor in only five percent of euthanasia cases. Another
study in the same country indicated that pain was the primary rationale
in only 11 percent of euthanasia requests. Thus, the chief
justification for legalizing euthanasia — that it is necessary to end
needless pain and suffering — is really a lie. The vast majority of
people in severe pain do not wish to die. They want life.

One cannot be oblivious to the reality of pain, or cold towards any
human suffering. One cannot assuage pain with banalities, for pain is
one of the most formidable facts of life in this world. From a medical
standpoint, tremendous advances have been made in modern pain-relieving
drugs and these help enormously. Various medical miracles mean that
people rarely suffer pain to the extent that they did 100 years ago.
>From a spiritual, Christian standpoint, pain, though exceedingly 
unpleasant, nevertheless serves some definite purpose in this 
less-than-perfect world of ours.

Purpose in Pain

The great Christian author C.S. Lewis reminds us that man is a fallen
creature, rebellious and filled with self-will. God reminds us in many
ways that we must be dependent on Him and must restrain the impulse to
“go it alone.” One of those ways is through pain. Pain is an evil,
without any question, but it is an evil permitted by God for a specific
purpose. “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender
self-will as long as all seems to be well with it,” Lewis comments.
Many sorts of evil conceal themselves behind facades of contentment and
pleasure. These, he says, represent “masked evil.” But, pain “is
unmasked, unmistakable evil.” Lewis writes that “pain is not only
immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can
rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities ... but pain
insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures,
speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone
to rouse a deaf world.” Man must be roused to the existence of evil, or
else, as Lewis writes, “he is enclosed in an illusion.” Pain
demonstrates the existence of evil to an unmistakable degree, to a
degree that no one can disregard. Pain tempers the rebellious human
spirit, reminds us of our dependency on God and of our fragility, and
turns us and our thoughts to the spiritual and the eternal.

That is part of a traditional Christian view of pain, and it is an
incontestable truth that this view once buttressed the courage of our
ancestors in the days before modern medicine, and helped them to gather
the strength to cope with the considerable suffering and hardship
around them. The only thing that can save our great nation today is for
all of us to strive to emulate the steadfast faith and courage of our

Americans of these final years of the 20th century must soundly reject
the twisted propaganda for death — that death can deliver them from
pain and inconvenience. Doubtless, it is sometimes troublesome, and
financially awkward, for some women to carry tiny children within
themselves and to give them that greatest of all gifts that can be
given — life. Sadly, some of them therefore shrug their obligation and
choose death for their offspring, and millions of helpless innocents
die.  Likewise, it is bothersome and burdensome for some families to
care for elders, for the sick, and for the severely disabled, and soon,
they too may choose death for their kin, if our courts and politicians
are allowed further to infringe on powers that belong to God alone.
Millions more will die.

Ill-conceived and diabolical schemes by elected officials, and
unconscionable decisions by arrogant judges at all levels in the
federal judiciary, promise to make commerce in death as commonplace as
commerce in cabbages. If that should comes to pass, then our nation
will have taken an irretrievable step on the road to moral catastrophe
and its twin companion, political despotism. We must prevent our
country from taking so fateful a step at all costs, and we must do so

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