POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

First, Do No Harm

by David Trumbull -- July 13, 2012

According to its promoters, the proposal to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts has been certified to appear on our November ballots. The Archdiocese of Boston has launched a website, to educate voters about this ill-considered proposal, warning of doctor-prescribed death:

  • It facilitates the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.

  • It promotes a most insidious form of discrimination, especially against the disabled.

  • Certain people claim for themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die.

  • It harms the integrity of the physician/patient relationship.
I applaud Cardinal O'Malley for directing resources of the Archdiocese against this dangerous initiative. One hopes that in Massachusetts, one of the most Catholic States in the Union, voters will reject this assault on the dignity of all human life. Equally, I hope that opposition to physician-assisted suicide not become narrowly religious. Reason, unaided by Scripture, but guided by Nature, ought to lead one to reject doctor-prescribed death. Some ancient, pre-Christian scientists and philosophers did exactly that.

Ancient Roman statesman Cicero, writing in the first century before Christ, disparaged self-murder, likening the suicide to a soldier who deserts his post. In the Sixth Book of his De Re Publica, Cicero has us imagine the hero Publius Scipio Africanus the Younger (185129 B.C.) visited, in a dream, by his dead father and grandfather. In the dream the elder Scipio (236-183 B.C.) tells his grandson that the dead are, in truth, more alive than the living, for they "have soared away from the bonds of the body, as from a prison-house; but your life, as it is called, is really death."

The younger Scipio responds to the ghost, "Why do I linger on earth? Why don't I hurry up and come to you there?" The answer is given: "Unless that God, to whom all this region that you can see belongs, has released you from the keeping of your body, the entrance to this place cannot be open to you... So, my Publius, you and all good men must allow the soul to remain in the keeping of the body, nor without His command, by whom it was given to you."

Even earlier, around the 5th century before Christ, physician-assisted suicide was rejected as incompatible with the healing profession. "First, do no harm," is a commonly voiced summary of the eponymous oath crafted by the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.). For centuries, physicians of all, and no, religious belief have recited:

"I swear by Apollo the Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods, and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that...I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect."