With the decline of traditional religious beliefs, especially in Western societies, the "quality of life ethic" is becoming more widespread and accepted. This ethic holds that the lives of some people lack a sufficient quality and therefore are not worth living, especially those people who are perceived to be burdensome or nonproductive.
Whereas, the traditional "sanctity of life" ethic holds that all human life is sacred and a precious gift from God. This ethic of life, which in Western societies is based on Judeo-Christian values, holds that all human life is to be respected and protected from conception to natural death. This implies that no human life is worth more than any other.
The main danger of the "quality of life ethic" replacing the "sanctity of life ethic" in our society and in our laws is that it creates a "slippery slope" in judging the value of human life, especially when it comes to accepting and legalizing euthanasia.
Euthanasia, sometimes called "mercy killing," is intentionally causing the death of a person who is suffering or whose life seems burdensome or meaningless. Euthanasia has long been unacceptable to most people and is strongly condemned by the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder." (#2277)
However, legally and morally accepting euthanasia can "creep up" on us, whether we realize it or not. As we gradually adopt the "quality of life ethic" in lieu of the "sanctity of life ethic," this is becoming an increasing danger for our society. We are becoming increasingly desensitized while moving down the "slippery slope" of the following four stages of euthanasia.
1. Voluntary - passive euthanasia
The first stage of euthanasia is called voluntary-passive euthanasia. It is voluntary because it is requested by the patient. It is passive because it involves disconnecting life support equipment or other life-sustaining medical treatment in order to allow a person to die naturally. It is not the active and direct killing of a person.
However, this is considered euthanasia when it involves the removal of "ordinary" medical care. "Ordinary" medical treatments are medical procedures that are well established, known to be beneficial, and not excessively burdensome due to expense or side effects. Artificial administration of food and water is normally considered "ordinary" medical care. That's because nutrition and hydration are basic human rights and they are to be provided as long as the patient is alive. As stated in the Catechism, "Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted." (#2279)
However, the Catholic Church teaches that it is not euthanasia to refuse "extraordinary" or "disproportionate" medical care when death is imminent. These are treatments that are risky or experimental, excessively painful, and only maintain the present state of incapacity without any hope that the patient will ever become any better. As stated in the Catechism, "Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of 'over-zealous' treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted." (#2278)
Many people, however, do not understand this distinction between "ordinary" and "extraordinary" medical care, nor do most Living Wills and Advance Directives clearly make this distinction. Since Living Wills/Advance Directives are very common and often permit the removal of "ordinary" medical care, including food and water, the first type of euthanasia (voluntary-passive) is now acceptable in our society.
2. Voluntary - active euthanasia
The second stage of euthanasia is voluntary-active euthanasia. It is voluntary since it is requested by the patient and is active since it involves taking action to intentionally end the life of the patient. Physician-assisted suicide, which is the prescription of lethal doses of medication to terminally ill people who want to hasten their own death, is voluntary-active euthanasia.
While physician-assisted suicide is promoted as a right to "die with dignity," it often becomes an obligation to die. That's because having this legal option can give rise to pressures being consciously or unconsciously placed on patients for them to ask to die so they will not be a burden to others, especially their families. Contrast this with the words of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, "euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing 'perversion' of mercy. True 'compassion' leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."
Nevertheless, physician-assisted suicide is becoming more acceptable as we increasingly adopt the "quality of life ethic." For example, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and the states of Oregon, Washington and Montana all legally allow physician-assisted suicide.
3. Involuntary - passive euthanasia
The third stage of euthanasia is involuntary-passive euthanasia. It is involuntary because it has not been explicitly requested by the patient. It is passive because it involves discontinuing life-sustaining medical care. There are an increasing number of occasions where discontinuing medical treatment has included legally removing a feeding tube from comatose or unconscious patients who did not clearly request this and who are otherwise not near death (e.g., Terri Schiavo). Removal of a feeding tube causes the patient to die of dehydration or starvation. However, since we don't starve sick animals to death, many people believe that intentionally starving a person to death is cruel and inhuman.
4. Involuntary - active euthanasia
Since we don't dehydrate or starve animals to death, why not also give humans a lethal shot instead of allowing them to dehydrate or starve to death? Clearly, once the third stage of euthanasia (involuntary-passive) becomes accepted, it's a very short leap to justify the final stage of euthanasia, which is called involuntary-active euthanasia. Again, this type of euthanasia is involuntary because it has not been explicitly requested by the patient. And, it is active because it is taking deliberate action to end the life of another person (e.g., giving a lethal injection).
In summary, proceeding down this "slippery slope" involves making a determination of which human lives can be legally ended based on the quality of their life. This means that some lives are considered more worth living than others. However, this is very dangerous because of potential ramifications. For example, if the elderly or terminally ill are able to be legally killed, why not the mentally or physically handicapped? What about deformed newborn infants?
Those who think this is an unrealistic possibility need only to remember Nazi Germany, where legalizing voluntary euthanasia led to the legalization of involuntary euthanasia, and eventually to the "Final Solution" of Jews in concentration camps. A system which legalizes euthanasia is nearly impossible to regulate. No system of safeguards can be foolproof once the initial steps are taken down the "slippery slope" of euthanasia.
We must, therefore, strive to hold onto and promote the sanctity of all human life. Human life is a precious gift entrusted to us by God, which we are all called to fully respect and defend. Since God is the giver of life, only God is entitled to take it away. In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II wrote, "The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die… God alone has power over life and death."