Urgent Attention

The USCCB prepares its first-ever policy statement on assisted suicide.


At the November 2010 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore, a motion was presented by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, that the USCCB create a policy statement on physicianassisted suicide.


The cardinal, who is also chairman of the USCCB’s Pro-Life Activities Committee, explained the committee’s reasoning on the purpose and timing of the proposed document, noting, “The full body of bishops has never issued a formal policy statement on this subject.” He proposed the document be presented for discussion and approval by the full body of bishops at their spring meeting in June 2011 in Seattle, Washington.

Cardinal DiNardo explained that the Pro-Life Committee had met in September 2010 to discuss the increasedactivity by states to legalize physicianassisted suicide. Its members “realized that the Catholic Church in the US needs to become more informed, and more importantly, mobilized to combat this renewed threat to human life,” he said.

The policy statement would “explain why assisted suicide does not truly serve either freedom or compassion, and highlight what Pope John Paul II called ‘the way of love and true mercy, that of preventing suffering and serving the genuine needs of seriously ill patients,’” the cardinal said.

He explained to his fellow bishops that the document would demonstrate how “Church teaching on physicianassisted suicide and euthanasia is in full harmony with our basic American convictions about the unalienable right to life and the equal dignity of each person.” Reflecting on the reason for urgency, Cardinal DiNardo said that “until recently, only one state passed a law on assisted suicide—Oregon in 1994.” In every other state where similar attempts were made, legislation allowing assisted suicide was “soundly defeated,” he noted. Several states passed laws to make it clearer that physician- assisted suicide was prohibited.

In 1997, “the Supreme Court rejected the idea that there was a constitutional right to assisted suicide,” the cardinal said. But the attitude toward legalized assisted suicide “has now changed, and very much for the worst,” beginning with Washington State’s 2008 popularvote passage of an initiative legalizing the practice.

“This has emboldened supporters to pass similar laws in other states, especially in the northwest part of our country and New England,” Cardinal DiNardo continued, using the recent efforts by Montana’s Supreme Court to declare assisted suicide legal as an example.

“This movement is far more organized and better funded, and more sophisticated, than in the past,” he stressed. The organization Compassion and Choices, formerly called the Hemlock Society, is now run by “a new generation of articulate and legally trained advocates,” targeting “particular states seen as especially vulnerable” with “national and international” funding behind them, the cardinal said.


Cardinal DiNardo urged the Church to “monitor the developments on this issue more closely and encourag Catholic physicians, policy advocates, and organizations to help form new coalitions with others who are concerned about this threat in religious, medical, and disability rights communities,” he said. “This issue falls squarely within our Conference’s priority for the life and dignity of the human person and educating and organizing the Catholic community to prevent the erosion of public policies that protect human life.”

Once Cardinal DiNardo had completed his statements, Bishop George Thomas of the Diocese of Helena, Montana was the first of several bishops to respond to his motion. Bishop Thomas explained that his state’s effort to legalize assisted suicide “flows from a district court’s interpretation of the Montana state constitution on its dignity and privacy provisions.” He said that the Montana State Supreme Court is split, but has not deemed assisted suicide explicitly constitutional, having only ruled: “Neither state law nor public policy prevent doctors from prescribing lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.”

The ruling will “place assisted suicide back in the hands of the 2011 legislature,” giving them to choice to permit or prohibit assisted suicide, Bishop Thomas informed his fellow bishops. The Montana State Catholic Conference believes that “we vitally need this kind of statement [from the USCCB].”

Archbishop Henry Mansell of the Diocese of Hartford noted, “The United States Census reports that in the next 10 years, the population over age 55 will increase by 36 percent. The Department of Health and Human Services discloses that the number of doctors will increase only by 7 percent, while health care funds are decreasing at the same time. So the pressure for assisted suicide will increase.”

Physician-assisted suicide is assumed to refer to the elderly, “but terminology can be very tricky, and sometimes it can refer to [those experiencing] depression or undue suffering, and that knows no age,” said Bishop Salvatore Matano of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont. “So at what age will this be acceptable, and will there be other segments of the population that we are completely giving up on, before we give up on all people who experience any difficulty, any anxiety, any depression, and any type of suffering? To what extent will we give up on trying to aid them, and even [give up on] the teaching of the Church…?”

Agreeing with retired Bishop Peter Rosazza of the Hartford diocese, who asked that the drafting of the statement be expedited, Bishop Matano emphasized, “Yesterday is when [the policy statement] was needed.”

A vote followed the discussion of Cardinal DiNardo’s motion, resulting in a 100 percent favorable response to the drafting of a policy statement on the subject.


Compassion and Choices and other assisted-suicide advocates are already at work in several states, pushing for legislation like that in Washington and Oregon.

Montana is one of the batt leground states in the assisted-suicide fight, as both Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Thomas acknowledged at the USCCB meeting. The state has had one of the highest suicide rates in the country for the past decade, and legislative efforts are building on both sides of the issue.

So far, there are two bills that would legalize assisted suicide, put forward by State Representative Dick Barrett and by State Senator Anders Blewett . There is one bill prohibiting physicianassisted suicide, sponsored by Senator Greg Hinkle, with hopes of a back-up bill in the House. The Hinkle bill would change Montana law by addressing the state Supreme Court decision Baxter v. State, which ruled that “patient consent” could be used as a defense for physicians charged with homicide after assisting in a suicide. Senator Hinkle’s bill removes that defense.

The Baxter case overlooked the fact that elder abuse, as well as homicide, are often difficult to detect because of the unwillingness of victims to report abuse, said Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference. So the Hinkle bill states that it is “against public policy to allow a victim to consent to the victim’s own homicide.”

The legislation would only cover assisted suicide and euthanasia cases, while not interfering with a patient’s right to stop life-support measures or further medical interventions, Wosepka explained. “We feel the state has a compelling interest in protecting the life of any at-risk individual or group who may be adversely affected by instituting physician-assisted suicide,” Wosepka said.

“There will be a battle,” Wosepka continued. “We know that Compassion and Choices is poised to spend tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars to legalize assisted suicide in Montana.” The Catholic Conference, however, is determined both to defeat the legalization of assisted suicide and to prohibit the practice through other legislation, he said.

“We must resist making a decision that will compromise the safety of some to provide a perceived benefit to a select few,” Wosepka explained.

In Idaho, Compassion and Choices’ efforts to convince physicians and others to push for assisted-suicide legislation have failed so far. When Kathryn Tucker, Compassion and Choices’ legal affairs director, was invited in 2010 to address the Idaho Medical Association about physicianassisted suicide, Dr. Robert Ancker, an Idaho physician board-certified in hospice and palliative medicine, gave a rebuttal. At one point, Ancker asked his audience how many would support assisted suicide for Idaho. No one raised a hand, according to a nurse present at the event.

In West Hartford, Connecticut, a court case has brought attention to the issue of assisted suicide after a man, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was allegedly assisted by his son in taking a lethal overdose to end his life. The son is presently facing second-degree manslaughter charges, as it is illegal to assist in another’s suicide in Connecticut. The outcome of the case may affect future efforts at legalizing assisted suicide in that state.

In 2007, the Vermont legislature defeated a bill to legalize physicianassisted suicide, with a House of Representatives vote of 63 to 82. But after the November 2010 general election, newly elected members of the state legislature as well as the state’s new governor represent a pro-assisted-suicide legislative majority. In a November 5, 2010 article in the National Right to Life News, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is quoted as saying that the issue of assisted suicide is not about pain but about people who are no longer “productive.” He has vowed to sign a bill to legalize assisted suicide in 2011.


Washington and Oregon are reaping what they have sown since passing assisted suicide legislation, with ever-increasing death-by-assistedsuicide rates. The Washington State Department of Health has verified 42 deaths from assisted suicide in 2009, and 75 deaths in 2010. Statistics for 2009 from the Oregon Department of Human Services reported 59 deaths from assisted suicide, adding to the 460 deaths by lethal overdose that occurred from 1998 to 2009.

In September 2010, the Oregon Health Authority released statistics showing that the suicide rate—excluding deaths by legally-defined assisted suicide—is 35 percent higher than the national average. According to the OHA, this rate has “increased significantly since 2000,” three years after the state legalized assisted suicide. Among Oregonians aged 10 to 24, suicide is now the second leading cause of death.

The suicide rate is also increasing in Washington State. The Associated Press reported on December 29, 2010 that the rate of suicides in King County (which includes the Seattle area) “represented the highest rate in nine years…at 253 deaths.”

Eileen Geller, RN, BSN, a hospice nurse and president of Seattle-based True Compassion Advocates, was pleased to hear about the USCCB’s forthcoming policy statement. “How wonderful for the bishops to clarify the Church’s longstanding support for the many ill, elderly, and disabled persons at risk for doctor-prescribed suicide,” she said.

“This policy statement—which I expect will be accompanied by practical means for assisting parishes in educating parishioners, and developing communities of compassionate care— is yet another essential milestone for the Church,” Geller said, adding, “It tells those who feel alone, abandoned, or in need of care r solace: ‘We are here for you.’”

Geller believes there is no question that seriously ill patients and the elderly are having a rougher time accessing care in states where assisted suicide is legal, saying, “The ‘choice’ of doctorprescribed death appears to have become illusory” for those people living in Washington and Oregon.

“Vulnerable people struggling with aging, illness, and disability are receiving the message that good care choices are few or nonexistent, but state-sponsored assisted suicide is cheap and readily available,” she said.

Geller reported that “health care professionals, including hospice workers, are telling us that hospitals are now ‘dumping’ very ill, even dying, patients out into the community, into nursing homes or adult family homes, which are ill-equipped to properly care for them. Patients and families are feeling more overwhelmed than ever, with less support, and less access to the care needed.”

She relates a story about a paralyzed woman who was discharged prematurely from the hospital. The woman could not be cared for at home, as she
needed full-time assistance. And she couldn’t afford the specialized care at a nursing facility “which could meet her medical needs, [and] assure good pain control and comfort care.”

A concerned relative explained to Geller that the woman was considering asking for assisted suicide. “This wasn’t truly her choice. She didn’t really want a lethal prescription,” Geller said. “Rather, she desperately wanted to be cared for. But she worried that her children would be strapped with a big debt… [and] would be angry with her if she racked up a huge bill before she died.”

This is a story repeated innumerable times by nurses, physicians, and overwhelmed family members in the Northwest, according to Geller. But she hopes that help is on the way.


With the USCCB choosing to gather in Seattle in June 2011, people fighting assisted suicide see symbolic value to the selection of the state that first attempted to legalize physicianassisted suicide in 1991. It will be the bishops’ first-ever meeting there, and it will include the presentation of the bishops’ first-ever policy statement on a topic so closely associated with the Northwest.

In his response to the USCCB’s decision to meet in Seattle and discuss this particular topic, newly installed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain reflected on his hopes for this national effort. He remarked that since the 2008 passage of I-1000, Washington’s “Death with Dignity” initiative, “the Church has been confronted with the legality of assisted suicide and the urgency of clearly and consistently upholding our teaching that human life is sacred, from the moment of conception until natural death.”

“Our pastoral responsibility is to support those in terminal conditions, and their families, with compassion and care so they don’t feel compelled to consider assisted suicide,” Sartain emphasized, adding: “Spiritually, we want to assist them to see the accompaniment of God in their suffering and thus find hope in him through the cross of his Son, who always gives life.”

The archbishop believes that this discussion in Seattle will be helpful. “It will provide us with an opportunity to reiterate our crucial teaching, delve into a profound mystery of our faith, and highlight the potential for abuse when society abandons its commitment to the sanctity of all life,” he emphasized.

“We in Washington State know well what can happen when assisted suicide is legal,” Sartain said. “I hope we will be able to provide guidance to other states so they can effectively resist the legalization of assisted suicide, as well as provide an example of how to support those with terminal medical conditions, both spiritually and compassionately, at the end of life.”

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