Doctor-assisted suicide masquerades as compassion

Ann Corkery of Walpole was shopping at Roche Brothers in West Roxbury on Oct. 30, when she noticed a signature drive going on outside the store. "People queued up to sign," said Ms. Corkery. "The chalk board next to the person asking for signatures said 'Compassion for the Terminally Ill.'"

Ms. Corkery, who works in a long-term care facility, knew of a petition to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) being circulated in Massachusetts. She informed the store manager that the petition people were signing did not support care or compassion for the terminally ill, but rather PAS. "You are doing a disservice to your customers," she said. "It's disingenuous to call this compassion."

Ms. Corkery also approached the person with the petition to ask if it supported assisted suicide. "They just wanted me to go," she said. "Just leave,' they told me, 'Just go.'"

In recent weeks, reports of similar incidents have come into the archdiocese from Everett and Wellesley. Dr. Joseph Hogan of Belmont said he was shopping at Target in Everett when he was asked to sign a petition in support of "human dignity and individual autonomy." "I am not sure the people who were signing the petition had a clue what the petition was about," said Hogan.

The signature drive that Ms. Corkery and Mr. Hogan witnessed supports a petition to allow a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at a terminally ill patient's request, to end that patient's life. To qualify, the patient must be an adult (18 years or older) and a resident of Massachusetts who is mentally capable of making health-care decisions, has been diagnosed with an incurable, terminal disease, and has voluntarily expressed a wish to die.

Proponents of the petition have until the first Wednesday in December to file 68,911 signatures with the Secretary of State of the Commonwealth, upon which the measure will be sent to the legislature in January of 2012. If the legislature does not act by the first week of May, proponents have until early July to gather an additional 11,485 signatures. If they are successful, the proposal for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide will appear as a referendum on the ballot in the November 2012 election.

Notices have gone out to all Catholic parishes in the archdiocese warning people about the nature of the petition and urging them not to sign. Catholic teaching is clear about end-of-life care. Suicide, assisted suicide, and euthanasia are against God's law and natural law. "By euthanasia is understood an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration on Euthanasia"). For example, no one can bring about or permit the death of an innocent human being, whether a child, adult, old person or one suffering from an incurable illness, or a person who is dying. People who are suffering, however, are not expected to endure pain; on the contrary, Church teaching encourages the use of palliative care, including the administration of medicines that alleviate and relieve pain, even if they hasten death.

Legalized assisted-suicide could bring about a situation in Massachusetts not unlike Oregon, which passed assisted suicide in 1997. A decade later suicide had become the leading cause of "injury death" in Oregon and the second leading cause of death among 15 to 34 year olds. By 2007, the suicide rate in Oregon, which had been declining, rose to 35 percent above the national average; that 35 percent does not include doctor-assisted deaths in Oregon. Even more tragic is the story of Randy Stroup of Dexter, Oregon, who applied for state-run health insurance when he was diagnosed with an incurable disease. Oregon's state health plan doesn't cover life-prolonging treatment unless there is a better than five-percent chance it will help a patient live for at least five years -- but it does cover doctor-assisted suicide as a means of providing comfort! "[How could they] not pay for medication that would help my life, and yet offer to pay to end my life?" asked Stroup when he received a letter issued under Oregon's assisted-suicide legislation guidelines, according to a 2008 Fox News report.

The concerns about language expressed by Ms. Corkery and Dr. Hogan are not accidental. Kathryn Tucker, legal affairs director for Compassion and Choices, a national organization that is in the forefront of the campaign to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, addressed a small gathering of faculty at Harvard Medical School on Oct. 21. When speaking about what she called "aid in dying" (the acronym for which is AID!), she said the word suicide is a thing of the "ancient past." To use the word "suicide," said Ms. Tucker is "incendiary." Instead, she prefers to talk about an "expansion of EOL choices," that is, "an expansion of End of Life choices," as if writing a prescription for lethal drugs for a patient who then goes home and administers them to himself is a normal part of end of life care much like hospice.

It is important that citizens of Massachusetts not be taken in by false language. Helping a person to kill himself is not "compassion"; it is assisted suicide. Similarly, encouragements to suicide are not "safeguards of human dignity." Assisted suicide is never an expansion of human freedom but, rather, a great constraint on human choice. "The choice for death is not one option among many, but an option to end all options," says Dr. Leon R. Kass, formerly chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, in "Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge of Bioethics." To end someone's suffering by ending his or her life is not a gift or a kindness. On the contrary, it is a hallmark of human dignity and compassion to care for the sick and the dying, to ease their pain and to comfort them even to the end.

It is equally important that citizens of Massachusetts rally to meet the challenge of assisted-suicide by refusing to sign the petition, by insisting that it be called what it is -- a measure to legalize doctor assisted suicide in Massachusetts -- and by opposing it on the grounds that suicide is always a tragedy.

Janet Benestad is Secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Boston.