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Physician-assisted suicide ruling denies human dignity and worth

"Insufficient by Itself to Defend the Dignity of the Human Person"

December 19, 2008.

Bishop George Thomas
Diocese of Helena, MT

Bishop's Column
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 24, No. 12

The era of physician-assisted suicide has been foisted upon us in Montana. The recent court ruling in District Court by Judge Dorothy McCarter stated that competent terminally ill patients have the right to obtain medications that can be self-administered to bring about their death. McCarter ruled that “the patient’s right to die with dignity includes protection of the patient’s physician from liability under the state’s homicide statutes.”

McCarter’s ruling is extremely disappointing. Her ruling echoes disturbing actions taken in the states of Oregon and Washington, introducing this blatant disregard for human life into our own state.

The ruling issued Friday, Dec. 5, makes Montana the third state in the nation to allow physicians to assist patients who wish to die by prescribing medications with the specific intention of causing death. The proponents of assisted suicide prefer to call the process “death with dignity” as opposed to the more accurate phrase of physician-assisted suicide.

“Death with dignity” is an unfortunate euphemism for assisted suicide because it implies a death in the natural order is not dignified. Death is a natural process in every human life, culminating in the hope of eternal life promised to those who walk faithfully in the footsteps of the Lord.

The timing of this court decision could not be more ironic. Recently the Montana Legislature established a Suicide Prevention Office due to concerns of the high rate of suicides in Montana, which is the highest per capita in the nation. The goal was to reduce the incidence of suicide. But we are now being told that death by suicide is “death with dignity,” in seeming contradiction to the stated goal of reduction. When we cheapen life by allowing people to end it when and how they choose, we send a message to others struggling with suicidal ideations.

Another troubling outcome of this decision is its effect on physicians, who take the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.” Does this court decision not turn physicians into accessories to state-sanctioned homicide?

Judge McCarter’s ruling also raises a third disturbing sentiment, as reported by the media. During the hearing, she questioned why the state wouldn’t extend to people the same humane action accorded to sick or injured pets, that is putting them to sleep. Is the judge intimating that there is no clear difference between animals and people? Does the court ruling not recognize the dignity and inherent worth of every person, a worth that is neither conferred nor removed by the state? If this is the court’s intended meaning, then we criticize in harshest terms attempts to degrade the God-given value of every human being. In a word, human life is a gift from God, who is the author of life and final arbiter of death.

The Diocese of Helena applauds the state Attorney General’s Office for agreeing to appeal the judge’s decision, and we will assist with an appeal as a friend of the court. Representative-elect Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, has said he will introduce legislation in the 2009 session to codify this ruling into Montana law. Legalizing assisted suicide is a social experiment that we will work to prevent.

We will also work with the religious, medical and mental health communities to provide compassionate care for the dying, and surround them with emotional and spiritual care and medical management of pain to ease their suffering.

This is, from our vantage, death with dignity.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 •