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.
The idea that assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering is equally misguided. It eliminates the person, and results in suffering for those left behind--grieving families and friends, and other vulnerable people who may be influenced by this event to see death as an escape.
The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe. They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to "suffer with" another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem.
Taking life in the name of compassion also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy. Once they convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion. Psychologically, as well, the physician who has begun to offer death as a solution for some illnesses is tempted to view it as the answer for an ever-broader range of problems.
This agenda actually risks adding to the suffering of seriously ill people. Their worst suffering is often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The realization that others--or society as a whole--may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify this kind of suffering.
Even health care providers' ability and willingness to provide palliative care such as effective pain management can be undermined by authorizing assisted suicide. Studies indicate that untreated pain among terminally ill patients may increase and development of hospice care can stagnate after assisted suicide is legalized. Government programs and private insurers may even limit support for care that could extend life, while emphasizing the "cost-effective" solution of a doctor-prescribed death. The reason for such trends is easy to understand. Why would medical professionals spend a lifetime developing the empathy and skills needed for the difficult but important task of providing optimum care, once society has authorized a "solution" for suffering patients that requires no skill at all? Once some people have become candidates for the inexpensive treatment of assisted suicide, public and private payers for health coverage also find it easy to direct life-affirming resources elsewhere.
For more information on the case against Physician Assisted Suicide, please go to the educational website www.SuicideIsAlwaysATragedy.org.