Some Catholic doctors concerned over moves to advance assisted suicide

BOSTON -- Dr. John Barravecchio, president of the Archdiocese of Boston's Guild of St. Luke, is among those Catholic physicians expressing concerns over recent moves to advance the cause of legalizing physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts.

"There's all those very precious things that happen at the end of people's lives that get short-changed by deciding they're just going to end it," he said in a Jan. 9 interview with The Pilot.

Besides heading the Guild of St. Luke, an organization of local Catholic physicians, Barravecchio is also currently doing nursing home practice and administrative work.

His worries over physician-assisted suicide come at a crucial time in the state, as efforts to legalize it in the Commonwealth have been underway for the last few months.

In October, Dr. Roger M. Kligler, a retired Falmouth physician who has metastatic prostate cancer, and Dr. Alan Steinbach filed a lawsuit alleging Kligler has the right to die by receiving a lethal dose of medication from his doctor.

The lawsuit lists Attorney General Maura Healey and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe as defendants.

Compassion and Choices, a non-profit organization that supports physician-assisted suicide, is working with Kligler on the lawsuit. Recently, it listed Massachusetts as a "priority state" on its website, and it is likely that legislation will be filed this year in the state that will also seek to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Coming on the heels of the lawsuit was a decision made by the Massachusetts Medical Society to survey its members on their attitudes towards physician-assisted suicide.

The Massachusetts Medical Society has long been against physician-assisted suicide, and was one of the many voices against the 2012 Massachusetts ballot question that sought to legalize it in the state. The Archdiocese of Boston was another one of those voices, and put significant resources into opposing the question, which was narrowly rejected.

Barravechhio said it might just be speculation on his end, but "the survey suggests that you're thinking about changing your position."

Either way, the society voted to approve the survey earlier this month, and is planning to spend thousands of dollars on it.

With five states already having legalized it in the United States, Barravecchio said he believes the push for legalizing it might stem from a "loss of family life."

"These are challenging times... There are not as many people around who care or step up as much," he said.

He believes, too, that a fear of death, and a fear of being unable to control when it will come, is also what drives the push.

"Some of it, people are afraid to get on the medical train, that they won't be allowed to get off at the stop they want to. I think that's what drives a lot of this -- the fear of what's coming," said Barravecchio.

Things like palliative care, a health model that not only looks to manage a patient's physical needs, but also a patient's spiritual and psychosocial needs, can help combat physician-assisted suicide.

"Sometimes you've got to look beyond what the words are. Sometimes they mean 'I want someone to take care of me, or to care,'" Barravecchio said.

"When they say, 'I want to die,' do they mean they really want to die, or do they just want someone to take care of them or assure them that they can help with their symptoms?" he added.

In March, the Guild of St. Luke will meet with a representative from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in the Commonwealth, to receive an update on relevant legislative issues.

Speaking to The Pilot Jan. 10, MCC executive director Jim Driscoll said the update will likely be primarily about physician-assisted suicide, and will probably focus on whether or not another ballot question will be filed in 2018.

If a bill is filed this year, the meeting will also touch upon that.

For Barravecchio, legalizing physician-assisted suicide is not the answer.

"Sometimes I've had people with symptoms and the best I could do was give them a hug, but I gave them a hug... Whatever you can do," he said.