“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
In its May 12, 2014 post, Mail Online reported that an 85 year old Italian woman paid €10,000 to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland to help her to commit suicide because she was ‘unhappy about losing her looks’.
Oriella Cazzanello was in good mental and physical health when she travelled from her home in Arzignano, near Vicenza in northern Italy, to a clinic in Basel, Switzerland.
She did not inform her relatives of her intentions, or where she was going. In fact, her family members only knew that she had taken her own life when they received her ashes and the death certificate from the clinic.
The Italian new agency ANSA reported that Mrs Cazzanello, a well-to-do pensioner, chose to end her life because she was ‘weighed down by ageing and the inevitable loss of the look of which she was proud’.
Although active euthanasia, where the physician directly administers a legal substance to a patient, is not legal in Switzerland, physician-assisted suicide is permitted since 1942. In physician-assisted suicide, the patient administers a lethal substance supplied by the doctor to himself, thereby causing his own death.
According to this Swiss Criminal Code, assisting someone to commit suicide is a crime only when it is done with ‘selfish motives’, like personal gain. Article 115 of the Code reads: ‘Inciting and assisting suicide: Any person who for selfish motives incites or assists another to commit or attempt to commit suicide shall, if that other person thereafter commits or attempts to commit suicide, be liable to a custodial sentence no exceeding five years or to a monetary penalty’.
Swiss law does not require a physician to be involved in assisted suicide. Neither does it require the recipient, that is, the suicide, to be a Swiss national.
This unique law, which is not found anywhere else in the world, has attracted many people who wish to end their lives to Switzerland. It was reported that in the past decade more than 200 Brits have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives by assisted suicide.
A University of Bern study found that about 16 percent of those who seek the services of the suicide clinics in Switzerland had no serious health problems. They were simply ‘weary of life’. Unlike most countries that have legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide, in Switzerland assisted suicide is legal even if the person requesting it is not terminally ill.
Many proponents of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide have argued that the decision to take one’s own life with the help of the physician is a very personal one. They argue that every person must have the right to do this because of the principle of autonomy. Assisted suicide is the ultimate act of self-determination, which is priced above everything else in a society that is governed by the dogma of individualism.
But although assisted suicide may be a personal decision, it can never be said to be a private one. This is because the individual is always part of a community, and his or her personal actions will always have ramifications on those who are related to her, and to society as a whole.
Seen in this way, Mrs Cazzanello’s decision to take her own life has profound impact and consequences on her family members who were kept in the dark, and who discovered what happened only when her ashes were delivered to them.
Furthermore, the legalization of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide betrays the way in which society looks at human life. It opens the door to what Pope John Paul II described as ‘the culture of death’ that trivializes human life in a way that will result in the moral erosion of the community.
In his encyclical entitled, Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Pope John Paul presents the most lucid account of the Christian view of suicide: ‘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 neighbour, 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 …’
The prohibition against murder – which includes suicide because it is self-murder –found in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13) addresses this question. The command that prohibits murder is in fact a command to value and protect human life.
In this commandment, we are taught to think about all human life, including our own, in a particular way – as God’s precious gift to us. Because life is a gift, the language of rights does not apply. Simply put, because life is God’s gift, we do not have the right to take our own lives. And finally, in this commandment we learn that our primary business is about living, not dying.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).