Doctor-prescribed suicide may not bring 'dignity,' say workshop presenters

BRAINTREE -- The realities of physician assisted suicide could reverse social stigmas against suicide, de-personalize care for people facing terminal illness, and create undignified final moments of life. Those points were the focus of the speakers at the Braintree presentation of the Archdiocese of Boston's educational campaign "Doctor-Prescribed Suicide is Suicide... and suicide is always a tragedy!" Similar education sessions were held through the archdiocese during the month of May.

"We do not want people to have illusions that this is somehow going to be beautiful, painless, and without difficulties. It may be in your own time, and it may be at your own choosing, but it could be fraught with difficulties," said director of Faith Formation and Evangelization Janet Benestad at the May 17 presentation.

Benestad has taken point on this issue for the archdiocese and said the images of potential suffering caused by life-ending procedures stands in stark contrast to the imagery of "dignity" promoted by supporters of the November ballot initiative.

She said the supporters of these acts of suicide go to great lengths to promote the idea of painless death.

"It is not unusual when someone asks for suicide, in Oregon and Washington where this is legal, for somebody from Compassion and Choices, the organization that is promoting assisted suicide, to go and be present at the death. I think one of the reasons is because they want to encourage the patient even if there are some difficulties. It is not likely to be an easy thing," Benestad said.

The Braintree conference presented three experts who spoke on the realities of the November ballot initiative.

Bioethicist, nurse and attorney M.C. Sullivan, director of Ethics at Covenant Health Systems in Lexington, addressed palliative care as an alternative to suicide.

"I tried to highlight the fact that the pending legislation has some serious flaws," Sullivan said, after the workshop.

She questioned the virtue of changing the duty of a physician from a role protecting life to a role taking life. She also said that the intention of law and public policy should tend toward broad application.

"By their own admission, instigators of this kind of referendum will say that it is not for everybody. Very few people have availed themselves of it in the states where it is legal. Well then, why are we having legislation for it if it is not for broad application?" she asked.

She said physicians, instead of being asked to take lives, should be asked to facilitate more peaceful transitions into natural death when the time comes. She pointed to palliative care as an alternative.

When providing palliative care, medical professionals focus their attention on alleviating the pain of a patient. They apply palliative care to patients facing chronic or terminal illness, setting it apart from hospice, or end of life, care. Alleviating pain in this way does not preclude curative treatment, but becomes a viable option when curative treatments become ineffective.

"Really, the only appropriate and on-point response to this is to look at other things to do when we know that therapeutic interventions no longer work, and the best of it is palliative care," she said.

Deacon Timothy J. Maher, of the archdiocese's Pro-Life Office, serves as Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. During the presentation he shared his expertise on how medications can affect the human body.

"I reviewed the use of drugs in palliative care, indicating that nowadays with the advances in palliative care we are able to relieve suffering and pain in the vast majority of people," Maher told The Pilot.

In contrast, he drew a disturbing picture of the reactions that can be caused by drugs prescribed to induce death.

"After ingestion, there have been some reports of patients vomiting. If that patient is by himself, or is lying down, they may have great difficulty clearing the vomitus from their oral cavity and they could aspirate it," Maher said.

Deacon Jim Greer, who oversees healthcare chaplains for the archdiocese, spoke of his ministry experience carrying out corporal works of mercy.

He told the participants that everyone in the workshop faced a terminal situation in their lives.

"I hate to tell you this, but we all have a terminal illness, and it is called life. Our life will come to an end, but we are so afraid to talk about that," he said.

Greer then related experiences from his time over the years ministering to the sick and the dying alongside his wife, which brought the couple often into the homes of dying individuals.

Benestad said of his talk. "It is a ministry of his to tend to the sick and the dying. When he tells these stories, they really do help us to appreciate that death is a part of life. Dying well is as much a part of living as anything else."

She added that each of the speakers provided strong support for the mission of the Church in opposing the "Death with Dignity Act" at the ballot in November, and said that many Catholics hold on to misconceptions regarding the teachings of the Church as one approaches the natural end.

Benestad said Catholics often believe incorrectly they have to accept any-and-all treatments to prolong life. She said Catholics can decline treatments that create hardships or become futile.

"There are choices whenever you are being faced with illness, and there are choices at the end of life. You are not limited in terms of choices you make, and that's important. Catholics misunderstand that all the time," Benestad said.

She said it is important for all Catholics in Massachusetts to become educated on this issue.

"Anybody who is a citizen, anybody who votes, anybody who is a member of the electorate in November is going to have an opportunity to vote for or against this. This is a very, very bad bill, so what we are trying to do is to make sure that we get that message out to people in our own parishes," she said.

The final education session will be on May 31 at St. John Chrysostom in West Roxbury when Benestad will join Henry Luthin and his wife, Pro-Life Office director Marianne Luthin, for an evening presentation.

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