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Special Report
August 08, 2011
The US bishops issue a new document on physician-assisted suicide.

As 200 Roman Catholic bishops arrived in Seattle—one of the most secularized and un-churched areas of the country—with a conference agenda covering controversial issues, some drama was to be expected.

The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, meeting June 15 to 17 in Bellevue, Washington, had a full schedule, with two issues in particular in the media’s focus: the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, having to do with clergy sexual abuse issues, and a new USCCB document on assisted suicide, having particular ramifications for Washingtonians, whose state became the second to legalize the practice in 2008.

Members of the media were suggesting ahead of time that discussion about clergy sexual abuse would undermine the credibility of the conference, distracting it from other issues at their June meeting. News coverage centered almost exclusively on sexual abuse before the bishops arrived.

There were a few members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests talking to the media outside the hotel on opening day. And a brief flurry of activity occurred when the hotel discovered that a room reserved under the name of a PR firm was actually to be used by the pro-assisted suicide organization Compassion & Choices. The hotel alerted security guards who patrolled the hallways outside the USCCB’s meeting rooms. 

But the business of the conference pressed on without further interruption.

Addressing assisted suicide

The assisted suicide policy statement, titled “To Live Each Day with Dignity,” was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops on June 16. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the USCCB, said before the vote was taken: “If there are any indications as to the importance of this document [to those trying to legislate assisted suicide], we know they are watching us very closely.” 

At a press conference following the document’s passage, it was not surprising that DiNardo was asked by Ann Rogers of the Pittsburgh Gazette the question du jour: “With all the interest in the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People], are you at all concerned that all this attention on the other issue is detracting from your ability to speak out on the assisted suicide document?”

Cardinal DiNardo responded: “I hadn’t really thought about this until you just now mentioned it. There has been great interest, especially by local state Catholic conferences around the country, [asking] as to when this policy statement [on assisted suicide] will be ready.”

“I don’t think we have suffered from any delusions as to the importance of this effort,” he added. “So in regards to your question, I think that what we are doing on this public statement has drawn quite a bit of interest.”

DiNardo explained that the statement would now be available on the USCCB website, at www.usccb.org/toliveeachday, “which will have a number of resources for use by state Catholic conferences, and can be used at both the diocesan and parish levels.” He also mentioned, “We are going to do a webinar with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability [in September 2011].”

The cardinal explained that “the purpose of all this is to engender a further discussion concerning an analysis and understanding of the human person.”

While the bishops were meeting down the hall, Compassion & Choices’ press conference began. The group’s national president, Barbara Coombs Lee, was adamant about her organization’s “interest” in what the USCCB was discussing. In an interview with Allen Schauffler of NBC affiliate KING 5 TV, Coombs Lee stated: “Every time a bill to legalize the medical practice of ‘aid in dying’ comes before elected representatives, the political arm of the Catholic conference is there to vigorously oppose it.”

 

As the organization typically does at its press events, Compassion & Choices introduced a possible future recipient of “aid in dying,” Dr. Richard Wesley. Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis disease, Wesley spoke briefly and with difficulty, saying simply: “It is my life. It is my death. And it should be my choice.”

As Cardinal DiNardo stated later, the USCCB’s new policy statement will be “a way of educating people who might have had the language of groups like Compassion & Choices foisted on them about assisted suicide, which is neither compassionate nor a good choice.”

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, hosting the USCCB meeting in his archdiocese, said that the bishops’ policy statement on physician-assisted suicide will engage the Church publicly with lawmakers and other interested parties on the issue.

Archbishop Sartain said that the bishops at the national level, and in their own dioceses, will be producing “more and more pastoral kinds of responses” to educate people about the implications of legalizing assisted suicide and the false assumptions that the law creates. “Obviously, one of the reasons we in Washington were so supportive of the document is that we don’t want what happened here to happen in other states,” he said.

“So many pressures are exerted on the sick already,” the archbishop said, “and the stress and sadness and the pain of being ill sometimes can be compounded by the very false feelings that when you’re ill, you’re a burden to your family, you’re a burden to society.”

“I never forgot what Pope John Paul II said when he himself was very ill: ‘A human person is never a burden,’” Archbishop Sartain said.

Eileen Geller, hospice registered nurse and founder of Seattle-based True Compassion Advocates, said that Compassion & Choices appears “not to get it.”

“Pro-suicide activists like Compassion & Choices, who market doctor-prescribed suicide to vulnerable seniors, encourage abuse and discrimination, not choice,” she stated.

Through her hospice work and her organization, Geller receives “frequent calls about seniors and people with disabilities who feel forced to consider assisted suicide because of emotional coercion or financial difficulties.”

Since Oregon legalized assisted suicide more than a decade ago, “that state’s suicide rates have climbed steadily, with Oregon now having one of the highest senior suicide rates in the country,” Geller said, adding: “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that promoting suicide and assisted suicide has negative consequences for society, for people of all ages, who feel ill, vulnerable, or discouraged.”

“The bishops’ policy statement speaks eloquently to the need of saying ‘no’ to assisted suicide while saying ‘yes’ to those in need of compassionate support,” Geller stated.

“The Catholic Church—one of the largest providers of care for the poor, elderly, and uninsured—is welcome in joining all the advocates of true compassion involved in disability rights, in faith communities, among physicians and health care workers, and millions of Americans opposing assisted suicide while supporting those at risk,” she said.

What the document says

The bishops’ document begins with a statement of hope for every human being, that each may live “in a manner worthy of our human dignity,” spending his last days “in peace and comfort, surrounded by loved ones.”

The document lists the common fears people have during those final days—of being kept alive “past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology,” experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, lingering with severe dementia, being abandoned, or becoming a burden on others.

The antidote to these fears, the document explains, is a caring community that “devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives…assuring them of the love and assistance of others…and their inherent worth.”

Medicine plays an important role during this time, especially “when a cure is not possible,” by providing palliative care, “alleviating pain and other symptoms and meeting basic needs.”  

Respect for the seriously ill “does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome,” the document continues, or that we “deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear of shortening life”—an extremely low risk “when medication is adjusted to a patient’s level of pain.”

“In fact, severe pain can shorten life, while effective palliative care can enhance the length, as well as the quality, of a person’s life, alleviating fears and problems that lead some patients to the desperation of considering suicide,” according to the policy statement.

Good care allows patients “to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, arriving at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves. No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless.”

The policy statement reviews the history of assisted suicide in this country, especially in Oregon and Washington, and ongoing attempts to pass similar laws in other states. It notes that in 1997, the US Supreme Court firmly rejected the idea that there was a constitutional right to assisted suicide. It upheld “state laws against the practice as legitimate safeguards for innocent human life and the ethical integrity of medicine.” 

“With expanded funding from wealthy donors, assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation, and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message,” the document states. “If they succeed society will undergo a radical change.”

The bishops’ document points out that since the word “suicide” upsets many people, pro-assisted suicide groups and individuals have pushed the use of euphemisms such as “aid in dying” to make the issue more acceptable, even changing the original name of the most prominent organization promoting the issue from the Hemlock Society to Compassion & Choices.

“Plain speaking is needed to strip away this veneer and uncover what is at stake,” the policy statement urges, “for this agenda promotes neither free choice nor compassion.”

The bishops’ statement outlines and defines three examples of “the illusion of freedom” inherent in the philosophy of the pro-death movement. First, medical professionals recognize that people who are suicidal commonly suffer from a mental illness or clinical depression. They can become incapable of seeing answers to their problems, believing death is their only option.

Even though Oregon’s and Washington’s assisted suicide laws suggest an evaluation of a person appearing to be mentally ill or depressed before prescribing lethal drugs, “such evaluations are rare. But even if the person is discovered to be depressed, it does not necessarily prevent prescribing the drugs, with no evaluation done at the time the drugs are taken,” the bishops note.  

There appears to be an effort to “avoid real scrutiny of the process—or any inquiry into whose choice is served…all reporting [being] done solely by the physician who prescribes lethal drugs.”

Once the drugs are prescribed, “the law requires no assessment of whether patients are acting freely, whether they are influenced by those who have financial or other motives for ensuring their deaths, or even whether others actually administer the drugs,” the statement emphasizes. 

“Here the line between assisted suicide and homicide becomes blurred,” the bishops state.

The document underscores the fact that people considering assisted suicide are vulnerable, needing care and protection.

“Offering them lethal drugs is a victory, not for freedom, but for the worst form of neglect,” especially with the increasing cases “of elder abuse and other forms of mistreatment and exploitation of vulnerable persons.”

The second distortion of freedom is the fact that the elderly and ill may be “unduly influenced by the biases and wishes of others”; the deaths of those expected to live less than six months are frequently viewed as good and acceptable.

“By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people,” the bishops write, “the government communicates the message that [such individuals] may be better off dead.”

“The excessively high premium our culture places on productivity and autonomy,” tends to discount the lives of those who have a disability or are dependent on others. Therefore, assisted suicide appears to some as “a reasonable response to what they agree is a meaningless life.”

“The assisted suicide agenda promotes a narrow and distorted notion of freedom by creating an expectation that certain people will be served by being helped to choose death,” the bishops conclude.

Third, assisted suicide is a threat to authentic human freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence, which states that “each human being has certain inalienable rights that government must protect.” Our founders intentionally placed life before liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life “is a basic human good and the condition necessary for enjoying all other goods,” the document emphasizes.

“One cannot uphold human freedom and dignity by devaluing human life.” Taking one’s life “is a supreme contradiction of freedom, a choice to eliminate all choices. A society that devalues some people’s lives, by hastening and facilitating their deaths, will ultimately lose respect for other rights and freedoms.”

In countries where personal autonomy is used to justify voluntary assisted suicide and euthanasia, “physicians take the lives of adults who never asked to die, and newborn children who have no choice in the matter. They have developed their own concept of a ‘life not worth living,’” completely eliminating a patient’s choice.

The bishops point out that leaders of the “aid in dying” movement in our country “voiced support for ending the lives of people who never asked for death, whose lives they see as meaningless or as a costly burden on the community.”

The “better way,” according to the USCCB’s policy, is for our society to “embrace what Pope John Paul II called ‘the way of love and true mercy’—a readiness to surround patients with love, support, and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering…anchored in unconditional respect for their human dignity, beginning with respect for the inherent value of their lives.”

“The choices we make together now, will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations,” the statement concludes. “We can help build a world in which love is stronger than death.”

A caregiver’s tale

 

At a press briefing at the USCCB conference, Dorothy Coughlin, director of the Office for People with Disabilities for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, discussed her experience caring for an older sister who is profoundly disabled.

Coughlin spoke with great emotion about a trip to the emergency room with her sister, and how it convinced her, more than ever, that we must all be “protectors” for the most vulnerable among us. It was the language used by an emergency room physician in diagnosing her disabled sister that haunts Coughlin.

“In cases like this, I revert to the approach of veterinary medicine,” he told her.

He determined “there is no diagnosis that can justify admitting her,” and discharged her as suffering merely from “back strain.” In obvious physical agony, her sister was then rushed by ambulance to another hospital, where she was discovered to be suffering septic shock. 

This time, with attentive doctors and medical staff correctly diagnosing her critical condition, Coughlin’s sister was immediately prepared for surgery. Twenty-one days later, she left the hospital to begin a months-long recovery.

Coughlin warned, “The risk is great in the care offered by medical professionals when the once-assumed safeguards, that respect the life of every person, are no longer assured for many vulnerable people.”

 
About the Author
Elenor K. Schoen 

 

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