Existentialist Albert Camus famously quipped that the very first philosophical question is, simply stated, whether to commit suicide. By way of explaining this, philosopher Ralph McInerny stated that any answer except a negative one is necessarily unreasonable. Camus himself perceived immediately that even to discuss the question is equivalent to answering it in the negative. Indeed, Dr. McInerny added in a lecture several years ago here in Connecticut that “knowing the true answer seems more important than snuffing oneself.”
Moreover, life itself is good; this is a bedrock principle of Catholic bioethics. This remains true even if pain occurs, severe pain. But the solution to pain definitely cannot be the rejection of life, which, again, is good. The solution to pain is solving the problem of pain. A person’s ceasing to exist cannot possibly be advantageous to that person’s betterment.
Pain, we know, even the severest pain, can be and needs to be addressed. The process is known as palliative care. Controlling pain is certainly consistent with Catholic tradition with respect to the value of human suffering, as Pope John Paul II reaffirmed in Salvifici doloris (11 Feb. 1984).
Nor is the so-called “rationing” of pain justified within the ambience of patients’ rights – a protocol which is wrongly used by some medical personnel in favor of euthanasia. Besides, as bioethicist Dr. Eugene F. Diamond has clearly argued, “given the fact that we have arrived at the point where all terminal pain is truly controllable, pain control should be defined as a right of all patients, most notably those who are dying.” (See The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Summer 2013.) Dr. Diamond also cited Dr. Vincent Collins, who declared that “there is no such thing as intractable pain, but only pain that is under-recognized, under-treated.” (Ibid.)
Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide both reflect the same ethical problems, and hence constitute backward movements in bioethical issues. Subtle modifications in vocabulary fail to clarify such procedures. For example, to begin referring to physician-assisted suicide as “physician assistance in dying” cannot transform an evil act into a good one; the act remains essentially the direct taking of an innocent human life. The innovative vocabulary merely polishes a thoroughly immoral act cosmetically; its essence remains dark and ugly. As such it retards civilized progress.