Father Leonard Klein, who died in 2011: “Physician-assisted suicide stems from a profoundly flawed understanding of humanity”
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Father Leonard Klein, who died in 2011: “Physician-assisted suicide stems from a profoundly flawed understanding of humanity”

Father Leonard Klein, who died in 2011: “Physician-assisted suicide stems from a profoundly flawed understanding of humanity”
The late Father Leonard Klein.

The late Father Leonard R. Klein was director of Pro Life Activities for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, pastor of the Cathedral of St. Peter, and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception churches in Wilmington. He died in 2019. He wrote this article in 2011.

The myth of autonomy is one of the dominant ideas of our time. Many of us imagine that our lives have meaning and value to the extent that we are able to choose and control everything about ourselves. This is self-deception. Such control is not possible. Nor desirable. We cannot live by choosing from an infinite menu of choices; it would drive us mad. Most aspects of our reality are given to us and cannot be chosen, including the fact that we live in an age in which many people imagine that absolute autonomy is both possible and good.

Nowhere does this myth find stronger expression than in the assisted suicide movement. We stand in awe and fear before the mystery of death, the threat of extinction. Death forces upon us the ultimate question of the meaning and purpose of our lives. The mystery of suffering and death is at the foundation of all religion and serious philosophy.

Death is the ultimate contradiction of the myth of autonomy. It will come, and our choices in the matter are quite limited. Yet many are under the illusion that the final breath of autonomy can be obtained by controlling the timing and nature of our death. Thus, the demand for physician-assisted suicide has arisen. After all, some imagine, we can show even death who’s boss.

The myth of autonomy and unfettered choice ignores the fundamental reality that we cannot be human alone. Everything that makes us human comes from our interactions with others. The freedoms we legally exercise are exercised within the constraints and opportunities afforded to us by the human community in which we live. The question, therefore, should not be whether people have a right to physician-assisted suicide. The question should be what we owe to the suffering and dying members of our community.

We owe them companionship, palliative care and human love – not killing. It is not about refusing to accept death when it comes, nor using every possible means to stave it off. It is about valuing the fragility of human life too much to destroy it.

The recent death of Dr. Jack Kervorkian has once again brought the issue of assisted suicide to the forefront. This man’s career should be a cautionary tale about his ideas, not an argument for them. The most sympathetic portrayal of his career paints a picture of a strange, isolated individual obsessed with death. In an interview with TV doctor Sanjay Gupta last year, he said that the worst moment of his life was the moment of birth. Such a sad individual is not a reliable guide to the ultimate.

He seemed unable to place any value on life beyond controlling its end, though ironically he himself died a natural death. In the end, the great champion of control lost control, as we all must.

The assisted suicide movement is a morally and humanly bad idea. Like any bad idea, it is also a slippery slope. Making doctors out to be killers is a dangerous move, if not downright crazy. Reports from the Netherlands, where the practice has long been sanctioned, are horrifying. There are anecdotal stories of elderly people who are afraid to go to hospital for fear of being euthanized. They have good reason to be; statistics collected in that country suggest that a significant percentage of doctors have taken it upon themselves to end the lives of patients. There has been considerable discussion about allowing depressed people—even teenagers—to exercise this so-called right. When bad becomes good, bad consequences are inevitable.

The assisted suicide movement should therefore be seen as a direct threat to individuals and communities, not as a new civil right. It stems from a profoundly flawed understanding of our humanity, and has already led to grotesque consequences. A significant percentage of Dr. Kervorkian’s patients were not terminally ill. Finally, one wonders how many of them had anything like the capacity for free choice. The notion of controlling death is an illusion. We cannot take death by the throat and control it. The terminally ill do not need to be killed; they need to be cared for.