European church leaders welcome assisted-suicide ruling, but worry it will be human right in future

(OSV News) -- Catholic Church representatives have welcomed a ruling by Europe's top human rights court that countries have no obligation to allow physician-assisted suicide.

However, they also voiced concern at suggestions that it could be recognized as a human right in the future.

"This judgment largely concerns procedural questions -- but it's a very good result," said Father Marco Ganci, the Holy See's permanent representative to the Council of Europe. "It was suggested refusal to permit assisted suicide violated the right to private family life set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. This has now been rejected."

The Italian priest was reacting to the June 13 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, that Hungary had not violated human rights by refusing to allow a terminally ill patient to be helped to die.

In an OSV News interview, Father Ganci said the Holy See, although represented at two dozen Europe-based international organizations, was not part of the European court system, and would not speculate on details of this latest court judgment.

Meanwhile, a Catholic bishop from Great Britain, where new legislation to allow "assisted dying" is under consideration, also praised the latest ruling but cautioned about its long-term implications.

"I welcome the judgment that there's no right to physician-assisted death -- as well as the Court's recommendation that high-quality palliative care, involving access to effective pain management, is essential to ensuring a dignified end to life," said Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, lead for life issues at the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

"However, the view that the European Convention has to be interpreted and applied in light of the present day, with appropriate legal measures kept under review, is disturbing," he said in a written statement sent to OSV News June 17.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on a case brought by Daniel Karsai, a lawyer who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease usually fatal within three to five years.

The 47-year-old argued that criminalization of physician-assisted suicide in his native Hungary violated privacy and family life clauses in the 1950 European Convention.

In the 6-1 ruling, the European court's judges said Karsai had been entitled to bring the case, fearing his future existence would "consist almost exclusively of pain and suffering."

However, they ruled that Hungary's ban on assisted suicide had helped secure the lives of "vulnerable individuals," while also "maintaining the medical profession's ethical integrity and protecting the morals of society."

This subject continues to raise "extremely sensitive moral and ethical questions, and one on which opinions in democratic countries often profoundly differ," the judgment continued.

The choice of "means that are appropriate in order to protect the right to life … will need to be made in full appreciation of the local conditions and institutions in a given society," the judgment said.

The court said relevant international documents did not "advise, let alone require," the Council of Europe's 46 member-countries to "provide access to PAD (physician-assisted death)."

In a June 15 statement, the European Center for Law and Justice, or ECLJ, which lobbies on moral issues, said the ruling would disappoint those hoping for a Europe-wide right to assisted suicide.

However, it added that the court's decision to keep the issue under review as public attitudes evolved also risked compromising "intangible principles" underlying human rights since World War II.

"It is dangerous for human rights to have their content and protection dependent on changes in mentality and legislation," a rule that "makes them variable and relative," said the ECLJ, which holds special consultative status at the United Nations.

"The evolutionary approach embraced by the Court suggests assisted suicide is a human right according to the number of countries that have legalized it, which is philosophically absurd."

Meanwhile, the president of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe, Vincenzo Bassi, told OSV News the ruling from the human rights court was a victory for the "European founding principle of subsidiarity" -- that European institutions "must not over-reach beyond the national competencies of member-states."

However, he warned there also were "ominous signs" that a public "impression of consensus" was forming around new human rights.

"When assisted suicide is proposed as a right, we reiterate that this would be incompatible with human dignity," Bassi said.

"The answer is to make it easier not to die, but to choose life -- and this is done by providing care, intergenerational solidarity and protagonizing family networks," he said. "This way, we'll have a chance to combat the pandemic of loneliness gripping our societies."

Several European countries -- such as Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain -- allow assisted suicide despite a 2012 Council of Europe resolution condemning it.

Paragraph 2325 of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church says suicide is forbidden by the Fifth Commendment and "seriously contrary to justice, hope and charity," while paragraph 2324 brands euthanasia as murder "whatever its forms or motives."

However, legislation to allow "aid in dying" is currently being debated in traditionally Catholic France and is under consideration in Britain, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

In his OSV News interview, Father Ganci, the Holy See representative, said the European Court was right to state that palliative care was always "the better alternative," adding that he was studying its motivation in suggesting the right to assisted suicide "remained open."

Meanwhile, Bishop Sherrington said "compassion and hope at the end of life" had been the theme of Britain's June 16 Catholic Day for Life, which is devoted annually to "raising awareness about the meaning and value of human life in every stage and condition."

"I thank all those health care professionals and family members who support those dying with dedication and provide the best possible care," the English bishop told OSV News. "The Catholic Church teaches that the moral prohibition against assisting suicide is based on revelation and natural law and cannot be changed. It calls for high-quality palliative care and a legal framework which protects the weakest and most vulnerable."

Meanwhile, Bassi said his Catholic family federation would continue stressing there was "no consensus" on assisted suicide, which should "remain within the competence of member-states."

"While we understand the desperation and pain, we nevertheless maintain that life is a gift and must not be subjected to any kind of disposal," the federation president told OSV News.- - - Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.