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 is being reprinted in four installments during the month of May, in conjunction with the archdiocesan education campaign against doctor-prescribed suicide.
There is an infinitely better way to address the needs of people with serious illnesses.
Our society should 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. This approach must be anchored in unconditional respect for their human dignity, beginning with respect for the inherent value of their lives.
Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear that they might have the side effect of shortening life. The risk of such an effect is extremely low when pain medication is adjusted to a patient's level of pain, with the laudable purpose of simply addressing that pain (CCC, no. 2279). 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. It can even alleviate the fears and problems that lead some patients to the desperation of considering suicide.
Effective palliative care also allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves. No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless. Learning how to face this last stage of our earthly lives is one of the most important and meaningful things each of us will do, and caregivers who help people through this process are also doing enormously important work. As Christians we believe that even suffering itself need not be meaningless--for as Pope John Paul II showed during his final illness, suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of others.