Massachusetts voters are expected to vote next November on a ballot initiative that, if approved, will legalize physician-assisted suicide in the Commonwealth.
To assist Catholics in educating themselves on this issue, The Pilot is re-printing the June 2011 statement on physician-assisted suicide issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "To live each day with dignity."
This document will be reprinted in four installments during the month of May, in conjunction with the Archdiocesan education campaign against Doctor-prescribed Suicide.
To live in a manner worthy of our human dignity, and to spend our final days on this earth in peace and comfort, surrounded by loved ones--that is the hope of each of us. In particular, Christian hope sees these final days as a time to prepare for our eternal destiny.
Today, however, many people fear the dying process. They are afraid of being kept alive past life's natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others.
Our society can be judged by how we respond to these fears. A caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives. When people are tempted to see their own lives as diminished in value or meaning, they most need the love and assistance of others to assure them of their inherent worth.
The healing art of medicine is an important part of this assistance. Even when a cure is not possible, medicine plays a critical role in providing "palliative care"--alleviating pain and other symptoms and meeting basic needs. Such care should combine medical skill with attention to the emotional as well as spiritual needs of those facing the end of life.
A Renewed Threat to Human Dignity
Today there is a campaign to respond to these fears and needs in a radically different way. It uses terms like "death with dignity" to describe a self-inflicted death, generally using a drug overdose prescribed by a doctor for the purpose of suicide.
This campaign to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide has been rejected by most policymakers in our society. Although Oregon passed a law in 1994 allowing physicians to prescribe deadly drugs for some patients, similar proposals were rejected by legislatures and voters in all other states for many years. The claim of a constitutional right to assisted suicide was firmly rejected in 1997 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld state laws against the practice as legitimate safeguards for innocent human life and the ethical integrity of medicine.
But after fourteen years of defeats, the assisted suicide campaign advanced its agenda when Washington state passed a law like Oregon's in 2008. The following year, Montana's highest court suggested that physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is not always against public policy. 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.