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Is Life Sacred? Assisted Suicide – a Reflection

by Vincent Schmid

Translated by Jack McDonald

Exit, an organisation which offers to help terminally ill people cut short their suffering, has operated legally in Switzerland since 2005. This practice, which occurs under the strictest judicial supervision, has recently prompted a fine and well-balanced documentary, Le choix de Jean [Jean’s Choice].

The delicate question of death by choice is a reality from which the Bible does not shrink. Saul, Elijah, Job, Paul – all these figures are depicted as seized at one moment or another by the desire to end it all. Some, like Saul, Samson and indeed Judas, achieve this goal. The Bible is familiar with this particular, ultimate, human behaviour: it is stated to exist rather than judged; at each occurrence, it takes place within the range of possible human experience.

But what does it mean?

It is possible to understand suicide as the supreme act of freedom. The ultimate freedom for someone facing the inevitable is to choose it rather than to have to undergo it. It is worth reminding ourselves of the way that the Gospels, especially John, present the approach of Jesus to his death on the cross: whereas he could easily have escaped from his enemies (by hiding or by fleeing – he didn’t lack for friends to assist…) Jesus instead chose to present himself before them. He chose to take a main part in his own death. “No one takes away my life; I give it by my own will.” (John 10.18) He endorsed his public pronouncements on the subject by the manner of his own death.

To this extent, Jesus sits alongside a large group of philosophers of Antiquity who countenanced the idea of deciding for oneself the time and manner of one’s death. Like Christ, Socrates thought that there were causes far higher and more important than the preservation of a single life.

A new approach to the suffering induced by physical degradation is possible: in spite of the multitude of clichés about the virtue of suffering which still circulate despite the onward march of medical techniques, we need to state again with vigour that suffering is not a value to be prized in itself. Suffering neither saves nor purifies nor instructs. Suffering belongs with tragedy and not with redemption. Suffering is the shocking shadow-side of our value-neutral sense experience. To desire to escape or cut short suffering when there is no hope of a cure is an attitude which is understandable even if we ourselves do not share it.

Suicide can be undertaken with others in mind. The incurably sick person who carries out this fatal course of action is refusing to inflict the spectacle of his own destruction by illness on those he loves; he wants to spare them the burden of an increasingly leaden dependency. It is a means for him of preventing that those around him should begin to wish for his death when this burden becomes unbearable. We can be in the presence here of a kind of self-offering in the best sense of the word: “There is no love greater than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15.13)

Finally, suicide does not cut across the spiritual dimension of human being. We note that Psalm 139 alludes to the frontier-territory of the desire for death: “If I ask the shadows to cover me, even the shadows are not dark for you.” This is especially interesting because it seems to be an attempt by someone to escape from God via suicide; and the psalmist affirms that even this end-state does not manage to sever us from our spiritual bearings.

So, the most radical act that a human being can carry out on himself, for whatever reason, cannot fend off the love of God. As Romans confirms: “Neither death nor life can separate us…” (Romans 8.38) There are plenty of factors which encourage us to think positively about a question which social and scientific changes are going to render ever more acute.


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