Euthanasia / Assisted Suicide

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State of the Question


From the Greek "eu" (which means good, well, etc.) and "thanatos" (which means death), euthanasia usually means “a good death” or mercy killing.  It generally means any action committed or omitted for the purpose of causing or hastening the death of a human being after birth. 

The Vatican's Declaration on Euthanasia states "By euthanasia is understood an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated." Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia, May 5, 1980.

Active euthanasia occurs when a doctor or medical staff person administers a lethal dose of medication with the intention of killing the patient.

Assisted suicide occurs when a doctor or medical staff person prescribes a lethal amount of medication with the intent of helping a person commit suicide. The patient then takes the dose or turns the switch. In both active euthanasia and assisted suicide, death is induced before its time.

Divine Revelation


Exodus 20:13

You shall not kill.


Deuteronomy 5:17

You shall not kill.


Matthew 5:21

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.'


Matthew 19:18

He asked him, "Which ones?" And Jesus replied, " 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness;


Mark 10:19

You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'"


Luke 18:20

You know the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.'"


Romans 13:9

The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, (namely) "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."


James 2:11  

For he who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not kill." Even if you do not commit adultery but kill, you have become a transgressor of the law.


Catechism of the Catholic Church


2277. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.
Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.


2324. Intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.


2281. Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends 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.
Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.


2325. Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.


The Magisterium of the Church


Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 66

Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church's tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one's neighbor, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel: "You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again" (Wisdom 16:13; cf. Tobit 13:2). 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.


Ecclesiastical Tradition


Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202) Adversus Haereses, IV, 20, 7.

"Man, living man, is the glory of God".  "Gloria Dei vivens homo":


Bishop Amphilochius of Iconium (c. 339 – 400) Homilies, II, 1; CCSG 3, 39.

Holy matrimony, chosen and elevated above all other earthly gifts" is "the begetter of humanity, the creator of images of God."  


Saint Gregory of Nyssa (330-394) De Hominis Opificio, 4: PG 44, 136.

God made man capable of carrying out his role as king of the earth ... Man was created in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything demonstrates that from the beginning man's nature was marked by royalty... Man is a king. Created to exercise dominion over the world, he was given a likeness to the king of the universe; he is the living image who participates by his dignity in the perfection of the divine archetype".


Saint John Damascene (676- 754/ 787) De Fide Orthodoxa, 2, 12: PG 94, 920.922, quoted in Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Prologue.

Called to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over other lesser creatures (cf. Gen 1:28), man is ruler and lord not only over things but especially over himself.  


Didache (c. 110 AD)

The most ancient non-biblical Christian writing-categorically repeated the commandment "You shall not kill":

"There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great difference between them... In accordance with the precept of the teaching: you shall not kill ... you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it once it is born ... The way of death is this: ... they show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God's creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you be able to stay ever apart, o children, from all these sins!". 

Didache, I, 1; II, 1-2; V, 1 and 3: Patres Apostolici, ed. F.X. Funk, I, 2-3, 6-9, 14-17; cf. Letter of Pseudo-Barnabas, XIX, 5: loc. cit., 90-93.


St. Augustine (354–430) The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 20.

It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, "Thou shalt not kill." This is proved especially by the omission of the words "thy neighbor," which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."  


The Teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church

Lactantius (c. 304-313) 7.89

If a murderer is guilty because he is a destroyer of man, he who kills himself is under the same guilt. For he also kills a man. In fact, the crime can be considered to be greater, for the punishment of it belongs to God alone. We did not come into this life of our own accord. Therefore, we can withdraw from this habitation of the body . . . only by the command of Him who placed us in this body. We are to inhabit it until He orders us to depart from it..


Lactantius (c. 304-313) 7.183

It is a virtue to despise death. Not that we seek death, or of our own accord inflict it upon ourselves . . . For this would be wicked and ungodly thing.


Human Reason


Taking a human life, one’s own or the life of another, or assisting one in the taking of a life, is  murder and morally and ethically evil. Euthanasia, or euphemistically, “a good death”, is the taking of a life, one’s own or the life of another, or assisting one in taking a life, is murder or an accomplice to murder and morally responsible. Then euthanasia is murder and morally and ethically evil.

Related Issues


Brain Death. Brain death is defined as complete and irreversible loss of all brain function and cardiac death is declared two to five minutes after cessation of the heartbeat. There are two commonly accepted sets of criteria for determining that death has occurred: the cardio-respiratory standard and the neurological standard (sometimes referred to as the “whole brain death” criterion). This holds especially for organ harvesting.


In his August 2000 address, Pope John Paul II says that when “ rigorously applied,” the neurological criterion “ does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.” He goes on to say “therefore a health worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria (i.e. cardio-respiratory and neurological) in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as “moral certainty” (No.5). “With regard to the parameters used today for ascertaining death ... the Church does not make technical decisions. She limits herself to the Gospel duty by comparing the data offered by medical science with the Christian understanding of the unity of the person, bringing out the similarities and the possible conflicts capable of endangering respect for human dignity”(No.5). For further information go to

Withholding Food and Water. The natural law and the Fifth Commandment requires that all ordinary means be used to preserve life, such as food, water, exercise, and medical care. Since the middle ages, however, Catholic theologians have recognized that human beings are not morally obligated to undergo every possible medical treatment to save their lives. Treatments that are unduly burdensome or sorrowful to a particular patient, such as amputation, or beyond the economic means of the person, or which only prolong the suffering of a dying person, are morally extraordinary, meaning they are not morally obligatory in a particular case. Medical means may be medically ordinary, but yet morally extraordinary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (2278) that “discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.”

In summary, nutrition and hydration, like bathing and changing the patient's position to avoid bedsores, is ordinary care that is owed to the patient. This is true even if it is delivered artificially, as when a baby is bottle-fed or a sick person is tube-fed. Nutrition and hydration may only be discontinued when they cannot achieve their natural purposes, such as when the body can no longer process them, or, when during the death process they would only prolong the person's suffering. If such a case the patient dies of the underlying disease. On the other hand, if starvation and dehydration is the foreseeable cause of death, to withhold or withdrawn nutrition and hydration is gravely immoral.

For more information go to

Removing Life Support. Pope John Paul II expressed criteria for removing life support in this way: "The possible decision either not to start or to halt a treatment will be deemed ethically correct if the treatment is ineffective or obviously disproportionate to the aims of sustaining life or recovering health."
In general, the benefits sought through medical care are the preservation or restoration of health and the alleviation of pain. In short, the goal of medicine is to promote optimal functioning, given the person's physical and mental capacities. Medical therapy does not always result in a cure. It does not always improve or restore health or prolong life. Often it merely circumvents, abates, or alleviates an illness or disease, but does not eliminate it. Pope John Paul II, "To the Participants in the 19th International Conference," n. 4.
For more information go to


Clowes, Ph.D., Brian (1997). The Facts of Life: An Authoritative Guide to Life and Family Issues. Human Life International: Front Royal, VA

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© 2012 Robert J. Schihl


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