Body Ownership Issues?

Two Belgian twins were recently euthanized together in December 2012. They were deaf and only learned recently that they would soon be blind. Since they could not see and hear each other, they chose to commit suicide. Euthanasia is permissible under Belgian law if “the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident.”

Of course, this action has played heavily into the ongoing debate about euthanasia in this country. Montana, Oregon and Washington already have laws which allow for assisted suicide.  These laws however only permit this in the case of terminal illness. The chosen suicide of the twins raises the ante because they chose to end their lives only to avoid suffering. This is a whole new wrinkle in the euthanasia debate and caused some interesting reactions.

Steve Siebold, a notorious libertarian, writes in the Huffington Post, “Critical thinking says that people should have 100 percent control over their own decisions as long as those decisions don’t violate the rights of others. This is fourth grade logic our elected leaders are apparently incapable of comprehending. In the Roman Catholic Church, suicide is a sin, because only God has the authority to end a human life. No evidence exists to support this claim, yet it’s the undercurrent of the laws banning assisted suicide. […] Forcing critical thinkers to adhere to laws based on fairy tales is wrong.” Our society has sunk so far in its rejection not only of religion but of an authentic philosophical picture of the nature of man.

The laws opposing assisted suicide are not just based on the Bible. They are based on a philosophical understanding of the human soul which recognizes first that his soul is immortal because human acts like intelligence transcend matter. If this is the case, then the human body has also an untouchable dimension about it because as Aristotle correctly observed against Plato the body is as much a part of human nature is the soul.

This transcendence of the human person means that the parents do not create the human soul though God has chosen to make their marital act the means by which he directly creates every human soul. Unless man is just looked up again as a particle of matter (a very primitive philosophical notion), the fact that the Creator must directly create every human soul means that he has rights over the soul which no one else possesses, not even the most powerful human society. Consequently, there is something untouchable about the human person as a whole.  Not even the person himself can claim such ownership over his body. He did not give himself life, nor can he take it away.

Suicide then is murder because it involves the death of an innocent human person; it matters not who is doing the killing. Suicide is also a social crime because it deprives society of an intelligent and spiritual being which even if deaf and blind can still add something to the social union. (Examples like Helen Keller come to mind.) It is also directly contrary to the inclinations of nature in which a person is called upon to reasonably love his own good.

The attempt to maintain that man has such ownership is part and parcel of the lust of domination which St. Augustine noted characterized the human situation after Original Sin. C. S. Lewis described the problem well when he has Satan say:

The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance of chastity comes from mens’ belief that they ‘own’ their bodies-those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of another. […] And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father (the devil) or the Enemy (Christ) will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man.

The idea that the State can give a person a right to suicide suggests totalitarian politics, which not only canonizes the State as one who gives life and death but also seeks to mean the individual shares such a right. This can only be the case if human beings see themselves simply as ciphers of matter with no untouchable character. To make a man the Lord of life and death even of his own is to put him in the place of the Creator.

The decision of the twins to end their lives is not even based on a desire to avoid a painful death.  It is result of a judgment that a life which involves suffering is not worth living. Though one can understand how compromising the trial of being deaf and blind is to a person, still the perception that such a life is without value is an example of the crassest kind of materialism.

This is a complete inversion of the ethics of man to give up hope in such circumstances. While rejecting the real hell, those who justify this kind of conduct against both reason and faith truly would see lives like this as hopeless as their hope in spiritual good seems non-existent. “Abandon hopes all ye who enter here.”

Father Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, O.P. is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. In 1966, he entered the Dominican Order and he was ordained a priest in Oakland, California in 1972. Father Mullady received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy, where served as a professor for six years. He has taught at several colleges and seminaries in the United States and is an academician of the Catholic Academy of Science, the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life, and the author of the Question and Answer column in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has been featured in several series on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). The author of three books and numerous articles, Fr. Mullady has served as a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, and mission preacher.
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