Challenges continue to church’s stand against assisted suicide

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien

Catholic News Service

Concern for human life and dignity from conception to natural death is a fundamental principle of Catholic teaching. But new challenges continue to crop up for those at the end of their lives, as backers of assisted suicide make inroads in various states through legislative action, voters’ choices or judicial fiat. Assisted suicide became legal this year in California and Canada. Those jurisdictions joined Oregon, Vermont, Montana and Washington state in allowing physicians to pre­scribe lethal drugs for patients who are believed to be close to death and have requested them. The Catholic Church has long been a staunch opponent of efforts to legalize assisted suicide, describing it as not just a religious issue but a matter of human rights.

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“From not only a Catholic perspective but any rational perspective, the intentional, willful act of killing oneself or another human being is clearly morally wrong,” said Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, as Canada prepared for the legalization of assisted suicide earlier this year.

He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “What­ever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed the issue with the 2011 statement, “To Live Each Day with Dig­nity,” which takes on many of the arguments used to justify assisted suicide.

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

The church also sees assisted suicide as a failure to address people’s very real fears about overly burdensome medical treatments and intractable pain at the end of life, as well as the depression and guilt that sometimes fuel decisions to commit assisted suicide. But opponents of assisted suicide see the answer to those concerns in greater reliance on palliative care.

“Palliative care implements a holistic, interdisciplinary care plan that identifies, assesses and addresses the com­prehensive needs of the seriously ill patient, including pain and other symptom management, psychosocial issues, emotional support and spiritual care,” according to a brochure from the Supportive Care Coalition, composed of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Cath­o­lic Health Association and 17 Catholic health care ministries serving in 43 states.

The coalition — based in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997 — sees palliative care as “a hallmark of Catholic health care.”

“It embodies our commitment to provide compassionate, high-quality, patient- and family-centered care for the chronically ill and dying by anticipating, preventing and treating suffering,” the brochure adds. In June, just days after California began permitting assisted suicide, Pope Francis said some supporters of euthanasia tend to “hide behind alleged compassion to justify killing a patient.”

“True compassion marginalizes no one, it does not humiliate people, it does not exclude them, much less consider their death as a good thing,” the pope said in a talk to health professionals from Spain and Latin America. “This would mean the triumph of selfishness, of that ‘throwaway culture’ that rejects and scorns people who do not fulfill certain criteria of health, beauty and usefulness.”

His predecessor, St. John Paul II, wrote in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), “To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in and at times to be the actual perpetrator of an injustice that can never be excused even if it is requested.”

He also criticized laws that “legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia.” The U.S bishops’ 2009 Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services state that Catholic health care institutions “may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way.”

“Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death,” the directives add.

But part of the church’s role in fighting assisted suicide is in educating people that church teaching does not require the continuation of aggressive or extraordinary medical treatments when their benefit is outweighed by the burdens placed on the patient and his or her family. In addition, many Catholics are unaware that suffering patients may receive as much pain medication as need­ed, even if it might hasten the patient’s death, as long as the intention is not to cause death but to relieve pain. But in nearly every U.S. state, efforts continue in the legislatures, the courts or the court of public opinion to make assisted suicide a legal option. O’Brien is retired deputy editor of CNS and is freelance book review editor for CNS.

PHOTO: In this April 19, 2011, file photo, patient Warren Saunders smiles as Dominican Sister Agnes Mary plays the piano at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., the mother­house of the Domin­i­can Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home there that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. The Catho­lic Church’s main weapon against assisted suicide rests in “robust palliative care,” said MC Sullivan, director of the Arch­diocese of Boston’s Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. (CNS photo/

Gregory A. Shemitz)

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