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Death with Dignity?

Most Rev. John Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland

July 14, 2011
  Here in Oregon many of our fellow citizens, sad to say, have been deluded into confronting the dying process in a manner unworthy of our human dignity.  Back in 1994 our legislators and governor passed a law which allowed physicians to prescribe deadly drugs for some patients.  It took 14 years before our neighbors to the north in Washington passed a law in 2008 like our own.  Then Montana’s highest court ruled that assisting terminally ill patients’ suicides would not be against public policy.  Efforts are already underway for similar legislation in several New England and western states.

Our Catholic community cannot take this immoral agenda as a lost cause in our advocacy for sound public policy.  Undoubtedly this issue will be pursued in many other states in the coming years.  When we American bishops met up in the Archdiocese of Seattle last month, we issued a statement entitled “To Live Each Day With Dignity: A Statement on Physician- Assisted Suicide.” We felt it was time for a focused statement on this matter from the full body of bishops that would indicate our church’s dedication to opposing this threat, a series of observations that could become the basis for future education and advocacy.  We readily acknowledge the hardships and fears patients may have when they face terminal illness.  We attempted to underscore the importance of life-affirming palliative care, which Blessed John Paul II called “the way of love and true mercy.”  Not only are we opposed to physician-assisted suicide but we are very concerned about the people who might be tempted by suicide.  In reading the document you will note that we make our case based on inherent human rights and the ethical principles of the medical profession.

Euphemisms abound among the proponents of physician-assisted suicide.  The expression “death with dignity” is used to describe a self-afflicted death, usually resulting from a drug overdose prescribed by a doctor for the purpose of suicide.  Over the years the proponents have become more careful in describing what they propose.  Nowadays they will not talk too much about “assisting suicide” and prefer to speak about “aid in dying.”  Even the organization which has led the campaign is concealing its agenda by changing its name.  The Hemlock Society began to squirm a bit when people associated the organization’s name with the harsh reality of death by poison.  Now the Hemlock Society has become “Compassion and Choices.”  The reality is that the Society’s agenda does not promote free choice or compassion.

Supposedly physician-assisted suicide allows people to be free to make a choice about how they are to die.  The problem is that suicidal persons increasingly become incapable of appreciating options for dealing with their problems.  The kind of freedom they really need is a freedom from their suicidal thoughts, which can be delivered through counseling and support, and, when necessary and helpful, medication.  An evaluation for mental illness or depression before lethal drugs are prescribed is not always required.  In fact, such evaluations are rare and even a finding of mental illness or depression does not necessarily prevent prescribing such drugs. 

Both here in Oregon and in Washington, real scrutiny for the process of doctor prescribed death is typically avoided.  All reporting is done only by the physician who prescribes the lethal drugs.  Once the drugs are prescribed, there is no requirement for the assessment of whether patients are acting freely, whether they are influenced by financial or other motives, or even whether other persons actually administer the drugs. 

Furthermore, the biases and wishes of others very often unduly influence what seem like free choices.  Terminally ill people are being led to think that they may very well be better off dead.  The bias many people have against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is actually embodied thereby in official policy.   The so-called freedom which physician-assisted suicide allegedly provides actually creates the expectation that certain people, unlike others, are better served by helping them choose death.

As far as compassion is concerned, there seems to be a real misunderstanding of what true compassion is all about.  The root meaning of the word means that we are willing to “suffer with” another person.  True compassion lightens the burdens of those who suffer while maintain solidarity with them.  It doesn’t put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses.  The folks in Holland have experienced the dangerous “slippery slope” of such false compassion.  The Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness and even melancholy.  When physicians begin to offer drugs as a solution for some illnesses they are tempted to look upon them as the answer to many more problems. 

Furthermore, the potential for the suffering of seriously ill people is greatly heightened.  Physical pain can be alleviated with competent medical care, but the feelings of isolation and hopelessness, compounded when a patient begins to think other people would see his or her death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to the problem, only magnify the suffering one must undergo in such trying circumstances. 

Efforts to provide good palliative care such as effective pain management is often undermined by authorizing assisted suicide.  Untreated pain among terminally ill patients may actually increase after the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and the development of hospice care can stagnate.  Insurers may even choose to limit support for care that could extend life, emphasizing the “cost-effective” solution of a doctor-prescribed death. 

The better way to deal with the problem is what Pope John Paul II called “the way of love and true mercy.”  This includes a readiness on the part of all to support patients with our love and companionship, providing them the help they need to ease their physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.  Respect for life doesn’t demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome.  Effective palliative care can help patients devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones and even with themselves.  This is no insignificant agenda at the end of one’s journey through life. 

We Catholic people need to be the messengers of the Gospel of Life.  It is our responsibility to defend and uphold the principle that all people have a right to live with dignity through every day of their lives.  What an affront it is to patients, caregivers and the ideals of medicine to claim that the “quick fix” of lethal pills is a better way.  It is the prayer of our Catholic community that our desire to help others will be heightened when they find themselves at death’s door and that together we can continue to work for the re-founding of a society in which love is truly stronger than death.


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