On the facilitation of murder

Reading Bruce Falconer’s article in last month’s Atlantic, about Swiss suicide facilitator Ludwig Manelli, I was struck by a husband’s repeated employment of animal metaphors to justify his wife’s poisoning. “You wouldn’t leave your dog on the kitchen floor when it can’t walk, can’t eat, can’t go outside to the toilet. Transform one life form to another, and you’ve got Jenny in six months.” His wife Jenny, before he stood by as Manelli’s assistants helped kill her, had a degenerative disease. “The weakest of any herd,” he explained, “gets killed by a lion or a tiger. . .”

It’s a particular tragedy of post-modern civilization that an inability to distinguish between dogs and humans is the purview of psychopaths and philosophers. This man, of course, didn’t think his wife a dog, but his worldview doesn’t allow him to see that her life, though mired in pain and unhappiness, might have a purpose beyond its utility to her, and to him.

Those who haven’t experienced chronic, debilitating pain or incapacitation should be wary of trivializing the suffering of others. As with most inviting sins, self-murder is far easier to resist when one is not tempted to do it. The non-Christian, further, does not comprehend this as sin. His incomprehension is tragic, because man at enmity with God is man at enmity with himself. His purposes are utilitarian, his world and vision are blighted, and death is his end.

It’s hard enough for a Christian to endure great physical pain, even when his understanding is rich enough to see suffering itself as both a witness and a sign, as Alexander Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World, of coming victory, of Christ’s trampling down of death by death. It must be harder still, if not offensive, to hear a healthy person painlessly whisper that this pain is for a greater good.

Pain and suffering simply are; they are part of a broken world, and so the question for man is how he will confront them when they come to him. If Christ Himself trembled in the Garden of Gethsemane, how then can we blame the non-Christian, contorted with multiple sclerosis, when he asks for what seems a dignified release?

We cannot blame him. And though we are obligated to declare the growing industry of facilitated murder in Switzerland a wicked enterprise, we should be mindful that it is the natural, rational action of people alienated from Christ. Which means the response cannot be simply to oppose suicide and the various forms of murder dabbled in at the fringes of the medical profession. We must oppose these things, because as Christians we are called to oppose evil. But the root cause is man’s alienation from Christ, and the only solution is his reunion with Christ, which means that for every Christian effort to change a law, there should be a hundred Christian efforts to change hearts.


  1. Emily

    I am so thankful to have read your post today. Sunday night, I visited my dear grandmother in the hospital where she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and probably congestive heart failure. Her quality of life is minimal, and after leaving her bedside, I found myself thinking of Mr. Falconer’s Atlantic article. I could see, quite clearly, why so many people view assisted suicide as a logical option. But today you’ve stated an important truth that I struggled to grasp that night. To use your words: “…her life, though mired in pain and unhappiness, might have a purpose beyond its utility to her, and to him.”

    I don’t know why the Lord is allowing my Nana to suffer, or why he’s allowed me to lose three unborn children, but life – even unborn life – has a purpose beyond its utility to me.

    I am clinging to the words of Job 1:21: “…Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

  2. Jules

    I suffer from a combination of three neurological diseases, including lupus. My organs are deteriorating as I write this. I start my day at a pain level of 6 or 7. Last night my husband held me helplessly as my pain hit a high 9 or a 10 and the opiates just weren’t working.

    I’m 50. With treatment, I’d probably live until I’m 70. I’m furious at your implication that I’m not a Christian or don’t have faith in the Lord because I’ve already decided that I will not live my life in excruciating agony that never lets up, as it probably will be for me in my 60s. I’ve prayed on this; I’ve spoken with my priest. And I know that the Lord does NOT want me to be in agony when I have other options that will bring me to his arms, whole and pain-free. You should have stuck with your statement that “Those who haven’t experienced chronic, debilitating pain or incapacitation should be wary of trivializing the suffering of others.” You really should, because you have no idea whatsoever.

    How DARE you tell me that relieving myself of agony and torment is a sin! “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

    I will not be reading any replies to this, as I refuse to listen to self-righteous people who think they have the right to dictate how my relationship with God should be.

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  4. Post

    Jules, I am perhaps more acquainted with this kind of suffering than you realize. But that’s neither here nor there. Individual suffering is not the determinant of Christian doctrine, which is well settled in this area.

    I can’t say what I would do in your dire straits, but I will pray that your suffering is neither long-lived nor in vain, and that your prayers are heard.

  5. Tom

    Having just returned from the shrine to our Blessed Mother at Lourdes, the most healing place I’ve ever experienced, I can say I now know about the miracle of healing that can happen to each of us, IF we open ourselves to the graces that abound in places like Lourdes. There was a lot of talk, before I left on the pilgrimage, about finding courage in suffering, as opposed to the restoration of health through Divine Intervention. While I don’t claim to completely understand, I think a visit to the Grotto at Lourdes imparts that message better than anywhere else I’ve been.

  6. Chris

    Hi Tony (and) I take issue with your conviction that I’d be against assisted suicide if only I hadn’t lost my connection/appreciation/love to Christianity.
    That somehow if I just surrendered to the idea that’s there’s a purpose to it all I’d find my true connection to Christ.

    That’s a slippery slope as far as I’m concerned. By way of example, there were quotes from people who survived 9/11 and explained it as divine intervention.

    It’s a short trip from that conviction to the other side of the coin, that being that God wanted those who didn’t survive to die. That there was purpose in their suffering, that there was purpose in them hurling themselves out of the towers.

    That there is purpose if your daughter is raped, purpose in brutal war crimes, purpose in mass starvation – if we only could surrender to it all.

    There is a distinction in accepting what life hands you as a Christian, because it enables you to grow stronger in character and humility and indeed to be more like Christ.

    A proactive decision to end one’s life due to terminal illness/end-of-life issues is not even remotely in the same category. It could be a kind, loving, self affirming act or it could be a horrible mistake, but it is not un-Christian.

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