Suffering and the Sanctity of Life: Why We Don’t See Eye-to-Eye on Abortion and Euthanasia

Jack Kevorkian, Very Still Life (2000)
Jack Kevorkian, Very Still Life (2000)

Is it wrong to take an innocent human life if you can do it without inflicting pain? What about if killing the person reduces the amount of pain that they’re in?

In the debates about both assisted suicide and abortion, it’s common to see two incompatible camps emerge. Despite all of the yelling and nastiness between the two sides, there are people in both camps who are trying to do the right thing. Frequently (not always), the problem is that they’ve simply got two incompatible moral codes. More or less, here are the two sides:

  • Suffering camp: this side believes that what makes a particular moral action wrong is that it causes suffering. Our moral duty is to minimize suffering and to maximize pleasure and happiness.
    • In the debate about abortion, this argument largely takes the form that abortion should be permitted before the fetus is old enough to feel pain. After all, the reasoning goes, if he can’t feel you aborting him, you’re not doing him any harm; and not aborting him would be a sort of suffering for his mother.
    • In the case of euthanasia, this argument is even more pronounced: to forbid assisted suicide seems like a cruel decision to force someone to suffer for no reason.
  • Sanctity of life camp: while this second camp is obviously concerned about the problem of suffering, they recognize that suffering isn’t the only concern. There are certain things that we can’t do, because they’re contrary to the inherent sanctity of life. The “suffering” camp often depicts this as a “religious argument,” as if one needed to affirm the Nicene Creed to reject assisted suicide and abortion. That’s false. While Christianity does have a lot to add to the conversation about the meaning of suffering, the core of the argument is not limited to religion. Rather, it’s that it’s always wrong to intentionally take innocent human life (that is, murder is always wrong). Human life is imbued with a particular dignity, so even if you kill someone without inflicting suffering, you’ve done something grossly evil.
    • For abortion, this shows what it’s wrong to kill the unborn child from the first moment of conception. Once the sperm and egg fuse, forming a genetically-distinct human organism  (with her own DNA), you’ve got a human being. Even if she can’t feel pain, she already has this inherent human dignity.
    • A similar line of argument shows what euthanasia is forbidden. A society in which people kill sick and suffering people – even with their consent! – is a society with legalized murder. And it leads to the creation of people like “Doctor” Jack Kevorkian (who, when he wasn’t killing sick people, spent his time painting scenes like “a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse and Santa crushing a baby in a manger,” paintings that often involved his own blood.)

The first thing to do is simply to recognize that these two camps exist, and that they’re operating with reasonable, but often contradictory, underlying assumptions. If we don’t recognize this, it’s easy to view “the other side” as simply irrational or evil. But the second thing we should is to try to make some sense of this. If you find yourself in the first camp (the suffering camp), what would be some reasons to switch sides? I would suggest a few:

  1. Not all suffering is morally evil. Underlying the whole morality of the suffering camp is the idea that suffering is an evil to be eradicated, or at least minimized as much as humanly possible. But think about something like childbirth. There’s a tremendous amount of suffering that goes along with it, but that doesn’t mean childbirth is an evil to be stamped out.
  2. Some types of suffering are actually good. There are people who are incapable of feeling physical pain, and this is tremendously dangerous, because pain is one of the ways that the body lets us know that things aren’t right. That’s true of non-physical forms of pain, as well. Unpleasant feelings like shame, sadness, frustration and anger can be ways of letting us know that things need to change in our lives.
  3. Eliminating suffering would require eliminating compassion and human love. The root of the word “compassion” refers to the ability to “suffer with” another, to share in their Passion. A person who can’t suffer can’t have compassion. The same is true of love: it creates a vulnerability in us that enables us to be heartbroken. It’s remarkable that we freely choose to love, knowing this. It’s an implicit recognition that sometimes suffering is good, or at least worth it. You might be thinking that love-without-a-possibility-of-suffering would be even better than love as we currently experience it. But imagine learning that your child has just died. Would you really say that a parent who simply shrugged this news off emotionlessly was better than a parent who grieved?
  4. There are all sorts of evil actions that the “suffering” camp can’t account for. There are depraved people in this world who derive pleasure from warped things. If you’ll pardon a graphic example, consider the man who likes to rape the comatose. Assuming that nobody else ever finds out (including the victims), it’s not clear that this causes “suffering.” But hopefully, you don’t doubt for a moment that this behavior isn’t just revolting, it’s wicked. And it’s wicked precisely because it violates inherent human dignity. That human dignity is what we mean when we speak of the sanctity of life.
  5. The creeping nature of the euthanasia exception. If the reason that euthanasia is okay (or even morally good!) is because it reduces the amount of suffering that the patient is in, then it would seem that euthanasia would be okay (or even good) even when the victim didn’t want to die. The same amount of suffering is reduced in either case.  (You might want to resist this by saying that the patient has a “right to die,” but this is a muddled argument. Humans have rights because they have inherent dignity. And it’s this inherent dignity, this sanctity of life, that explains why it’s always and everywhere wrong to murder them.). Perhaps unsurprisingly, regimes that permit euthanasia quickly find the boundaries of euthanasia to expand to (a) killing people who aren’t terminally ill, but are simply lonely or sad or suffering, and (b) killing people who can’t consent to being murdered (like the young and the unconscious).
  6. The “suffering” camp permits murder. We’ve already seen two types of murder that the “suffering” camp permits – abortion for young embryos, and the euthanasia of sick or suffering people. But if it’s okay to murder an unborn child before she can feel pain, why isn’t it okay to murder the milkman in his sleep? In both cases, your unconscious victim won’t feel a thing. (And it’s no good to say, “but the milkman’s family will suffer!” We permit abortion even over the father’s objections, so we’re already okay with inflicting suffering on the victims’ families. Plus, in both the abortion case and the milkman case, you could perform the murder discretely, so that no one else would ever know the truth)
  7. It literally justifies global annihilation. Imagine that you created a poisonous gas that would quickly and instantly kill everyone on Earth. Would it be morally wrong to use this to murder everyone? By the lights of the “suffering” camp, it’s hard to see why it would be. Nobody would suffer, and killing off the whole human race would even prevent a lot of future suffering.

It seems to me that a morality that looks at the mass extermination of the entire human race and says, “That might be fine” is simply a bad morality. The “suffering” camp is an easy morality to slip into (because suffering is unpleasant!), it’s morally and philosophically indefensible.

While points # 4-7 show how bad the “suffering” camp’s morality is, it’s points #1-3 that show why. The mistake in the suffering camp’s argument is to imagine that all suffering is meaningless and evil. That’s not true. We’ve seen above that at least some suffering is important and  good.

A Postscript of Sorts:

Everything that I’ve said so far is true regardless of religion, but it’s here that Christianity has something important to say. It’s Christianity, and particularly the Cross, that reveals the fullest meaning of human suffering. The Cross is the greatest human suffering, but it is also the greatest expression of human love and the greatest act of any man in history. It’s here that Christianity stands head-and-shoulders above other religious systems, in that it speaks credibly and sanely on the issue of suffering, neither glamorizing it falsely nor waving it away, but embracing it with both hands and letting us know that it’s not in vain. Malcolm Muggeridge put it this way:

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo … the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of course is what the cross [of Christ] signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.

There’s much more to be said about suffering, and about the Cross. Pope St. John Paul II wrote an entire encyclical on the subject, Salvifici Doloris. Hopefully, we can all agree that at least some suffering is meaningful, and not in vain. Christianity shows that this category of meaningful suffering might be a whole lot larger than we realize.


  1. Most “Catholics” understand nothing of the merit of suffering or the sanctity of life- that is why 60% of American Catholics will vote for Hillary.

    1. It’s actually an interesting question. I’m inclined to agree that abortion is obviously homicide and therefore some punishment for someone who provides one is warranted. But no more than manslaughter. The abortionist on the other hand is guilty of murder for hire.

    2. It’s important to note that while the woman who procures an abortion may be guilty of a crime, she’s still a victim. She needs prayers and God’s mercy.

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