In Deuteronomy 30:19 it is written: “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make.” In the past century many societies and innumerable individuals have pursued death rather than life. While history has been marked by significant human losses due to disease, plagues, famine and natural disasters, a preponderance of the deaths in the last century have been premeditated, of epic proportions and largely the product of man himself.
Tremendous advances in science and technology have given man an unprecedented power to create, alter and destroy human life. An almost unquenchable desire for material gain, unchecked due to our societal unbelief in a higher moral law, has made human life expendable, secondary to the pursuit of economic, political or social ends. The result is that the past century has witnessed two world wars, fascism, Nazism, communism, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, gulags, a military doctrine of mutually assured destruction, rampant abortion and now a growing acceptance of euthanasia.
Wars and genocide
This age of death may be said to have begun on June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, launching World War I. In the course of this four-year conflict, more than 17 million people were killed and another 20 million wounded. Two decades later, the world was at war again. During the next nine years, more than 50 countries fought, resulting in 60-80 million people being killed. World War II was soon followed by conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and now a global war on terrorism.
In addition to hostilities among nations, there have been genocidal movements to destroy ethnic, racial and religious groups. In the early 1930s, Stalin, through deportations, executions and a forced famine, killed some 7 million Ukrainians. In the early 1940s, Hitler exterminated some 11 million people, more than half of them European Jews. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge killed some 2 million Cambodians in order to turn the nation into a Communist state. In 1994, the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda murdered an estimated 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority; when the Tutsi gained control, as many as 2 million Hutu fled the country for fear of their lives.
Abortion and euthanasia
But wars and genocidal movements have not been the only, or even the major, causes of human destruction. In 1973 the United States legalized abortion; since then, some 60 million children have been legally aborted. This number, as horrific as it is, pales before the estimated 2 billion abortions performed worldwide in that time — that is, some 40-50 million unborn children have been and continue to be destroyed annually. This carnage is being conducted either by cultural or governmental influence, as in India and China, or for personal convenience, as in the United States and Western Europe.
While the business of procured death is well established at the beginning of life, the focus now is being turned to rid society of the aged, the disabled and the incurably infirm. Under the guise of compassion and quality of life, the very elderly and the terminally ill are becoming subjects for euthanasia. Although still in its infancy, this movement is increasing in Western Europe and gaining acceptance in the United States.
Euthanasia takes a number of forms. The most prevalent is voluntary suicide, usually approved or assisted by a physician. In several European countries doctors may provide lethal drugs to those with unbearable suffering or severe mental impairments who have no prospect of improvement. In the United States physician-assisted suicide is legal in six states and the District of Columbia; 27 other states have considered it.
A second variation is nonvoluntary euthanasia in which a guardian’s judgment is substituted for that of a patient who is physically or mentally incapable of consenting. A third approach is involuntary euthanasia, in which an unrelated party decides that a seriously ill person should not receive a needed life-saving treatment. With the growing legality of physician-assisted suicide, there is concern that this may become more common among cost-conscious insurance companies.
Culture of death
When large sums of money are to be made through abortion, when a parent’s wishes override an unborn child’s right to life, when the quality of life is considered more important than life itself, when euthanasia becomes a therapeutic option, when efficiency and cost containment become criteria for medical decisions, a culture of death rules — life is no longer considered an unalienable right endowed by the Creator.
If the culture in Western societies is to be reclaimed from hostile, agnostic influences, Catholics — indeed, all Christians — must work to rekindle a belief in God among the general populace and elect government officials who will work in accord with transcendent moral principles. The ability to destroy life must be refocused to preserve life and improve its quality at every stage, from conception to natural death. Turning the cultural tide will be difficult, but with faith, prayer and leadership from the pulpit, it can be done.
Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.