Compassion in Dying?

Gerard Bradley*

Did you know that the New Testament views the suicide of Judas not as sinful or as wrong or regrettable, but approvingly as an "act of repentance?" Have you heard that the "rage for suicide" among early Christians was turned back only by St. Augustine's "utilitarian" concern that the ranks of Christians were fast thinning?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed these propositions, and many more equally preposterous ones, in a March 1996 opinion, eerily named Compassion in Dying v. Washington. The false religious teaching is bad enough. That the judges based a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide partly upon it is more cause for believers' alarm. Indeed, Compassion reads much like Roe v. Wade, with all its pseudo-history of Greek, Roman and other historical attitudes toward abortion. Like Roe, Compassion sought to present its deadly conclusion as, if not within the mainstream of Western ethical reflection, just barely outside it.

Compassion's systematic misrepresentation of Christian moral judgment owes not just to the court's ignorance of that tradition, but also to the judges' own reductionist account of human action. On their view, one does an act and one ends up dead. Call it suicide if you like. Call it martyrdom. One is just as dead, either way. So, the Compassion court adduced a history of martyrdom and of Christian hope of heaven during times of earthly tribulation as evidence of Christianity's favorable evaluation of suicide. On the Ninth Circuit's view of how to identify an act for moral evaluative terms, one could just as easily say that Jesus was a suicide as that He was a martyr. In contemplation of law, there is no significant difference.

Where is the wall of separation between religion and the state when you really need it?

*Gerard Bradley is a professor at Notre Dame Law School.



2002 The Federalist Society