By Kimberly Baker

October 29, 2010

In a recent statement, Ludwig Minelli, founder of the Swiss death clinic, Dignitas, called for suicide drugs to be legally available to distraught spouses of his suicide clients should they wish to follow their loved ones in ending their lives.

Assisted suicide has become an increasingly controversial issue as advocates insist it is a humane, dignified way to die. Efforts to turn public opinion in favor of assisted suicide include an appeal to patient autonomy and freedom of choice. Opponents of assisted suicide are criticized for lacking compassion when they try to prevent an elderly, disabled or terminally ill person from deciding to end his or her suffering through suicide.

The choice to end one's life, however, is not an exercise of freedom; it is ultimately a manifestation of loss and despair. The desire to end a painful health condition is one reason for a suicidal tendency, but there are ways to eliminate pain without killing the patient. By far, the most common reason for a suicidal tendency is one's self-perception as a burden, as not worthy of someone else's time or care. Something is very wrong when people, out of feelings of guilt, fear, or sadness, begin to define their worth and sense of self only in terms of their "usefulness" to others.

This idea of being a "burden" shows a lack of hope. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among the general American population, and the 3rd leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. (What does this lack of hope say about our culture and especially the younger generation?)

Taking one's life is not an act of courage; it is an escape. One could say, however, that the decision to go on living despite difficulties is the supreme act of courage and a significant expression of freedom.

If governments and societies encourage a "right to die," among those who are elderly, handicapped, and terminally ill, where then can the line be drawn among others who also wish to end their lives? Does this not undermine suicide prevention efforts and create a double standard, when certain classes of people are officially seen as having 'good' or acceptable suicides?

It is tragic for an elderly or disabled person to say, I'm no good like this anymore, I'm in pain, I'm useless, I'm ugly, I'm running up medical bills for my family, I want to die and be gone. It is the suicidal person who is a prisoner, who feels trapped.

So where lies true freedom? To be secure about one's dignity and worth, to be convinced that one is immensely loved by God and has infinite value, allows a person to be truly free. In such freedom and security, to consider oneself as a burden is not even an option.  Life is still too beautiful, still too full of mystery and wonder, to shut down. If life is a gift, one should never feel guilty for simply existing.

It is the marketing of death as a solution that undermines hope and freedom. But it is the experience of love, authentic love which includes genuine concern and sincere affirmation  that inspires hope, which makes a person want to live.

Kimberly Baker is a staff assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  For more information on the bishops' pro-life activities, please visit


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