During its spring general assembly in Seattle, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its first-ever statement from the entire body of bishops on the subject of assisted suicide. CNS has a full report here.
The city in which the statement was made public is not insignificant – in 2008, Washington became the second state in the US to legalize assisted suicide, after Oregon did so in 1994.
The bishops’ statement specifically mentions the pro-suicide efforts of the Hemlock Society – now known as Compassion & Choices – to soften the public image of the practice. In addition to changing its name, the organization pushed the adoption of euphemistic phrases such as “aid in dying” or “death with dignity,” rather than the less-appealing “assisted suicide.” As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, presented the new statement, Compassion & Choices held a competing press conference in the same hotel in which the bishops were meeting.
The bishops’ statement does not attempt to minimize the pain and suffering of those with serious or terminal illnesses, but it makes clear that assisting such individuals in ending their lives is “a false compassion” and an exploitation of their vulnerability:
The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe. They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to “suffer with” another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem.
Taking life in the name of compassion also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. 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. Once they convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion. Psychologically, as well, the physician who has begun to offer death as a solution for some illnesses is tempted to view it as the answer for an ever-broader range of problems.
Passed by a vote of 191-1 (one wonders: who was the one bishop to vote against it?), the statement can read in its entirety here.
The USCCB’s website also includes several fact sheets on assisted suicide, focusing on the results of assisted suicide in the two states and other countries that have already legalized the practice. One of these, “Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: From Voluntary to Involuntary,” includes a particularly chilling passage on the reality facing Oregon residents whose illnesses may be perceived as “too expensive”:
Oregon has taken steps toward an “expected” earlier death for patients whose care costs the government money. In 1995, Oregon’s State Health Services Commission voted 10-to-1 to include physician-assisted suicide as a form of “comfort care” for all low-income terminally ill patients covered by Oregon’s Medicaid rationing program. In response to criticisms that Oregonians never voted to support assisted suicide with taxpayer money, the head of Oregon’s Medical Assistance Program replied: “These are cheap prescriptions, and health care provider time will not be significant” (See Patients Right Council, op. cit.). Since then, some patients on the Oregon Health Plan have received letters from the state saying it will not pay for drugs that may help stave off their death but will fully cover assisted suicide. “It was horrible,” said one woman, cancer patient Barbara Wagner. “I got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won’t give you the medication to live.” Hemlock founder Derek Humphry reacted by saying that the Oregon Health Plan’s approach is sound.
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