Legislation has been filed in New York State to legalize physician assisted suicide, and a lawsuit has been filed seeking the same goal. The advocates of death are calling their effort “death with dignity”, and are appealing to a sense of compassion for those experiencing suffering as the end of life approaches. We cannot fall for this — it is wrong, it is dangerous, and it must be opposed with all our energy.
The very term “death with dignity”, used as a euphemism for suicide, is a terrible lie. It demeans those whose death from natural causes was not just dignified but even beautiful. My mother passed away a few years ago from cancer. It was a long illness, and she experienced real suffering, as did all of her loved ones. But we worked with her doctors and with hospice staff to alleviate her pain, and give her as much comfort and love as we could. She died at home after receiving the Anointing of the Sick, with her family around her. Her death was holy, and beautiful. It is an insult and a lie to imply that her death did not have dignity, because she did not kill herself.
The effort to legalize assisted suicide is based on an even deeper falsehood — trying to eliminate the crucial difference between allowing natural death to occur, and intentionally causing someone’s death. Death will come for us all, from one cause or another. And when the time comes, we are not morally obligated to undergo extraordinary or disproportionate forms of treatment — measures that will cause unnecessary suffering while yielding little benefit. But that is not the same as killing a patient or killing myself. It is accepting the inevitability of death by natural causes. Life is a great gift from God, and He will call me back to Him in His good time. I cannot become my own god and just throw this gift away.
The advocates for death must realize that they cannot face the truth about what they are doing, because they are hiding their bill behind the Orwellian term “aid in dying”. In fact, in the Assembly bill, they even try to deny that what they are legalizing is suicide or assisted suicide — as if such a transparently phony statement can conceal what is really going on.
Assisted suicide also seriously distort the nature of our health care system, which is already under so much pressure to treat patients as commodities and to look primarily to the bottom line and to convenience, rather than to care for the human person. The relationship between a doctor and a patient should be about healing, care, and trust. Legalizing assisted suicide fundamentally changes that sacred relationship — that’s why the American Medical Association opposes bills that will have doctors break their promise to “do no harm”.
This will also increase dangerous pressure on vulnerable patients to choose death — people who are chronically ill, handicapped, lonely, isolated, depressed. In fact, assisted suicide discriminates against those who are most in need of our help. This will become more and more of a problem as health care resources become more expensive and scarce. We’ve seen in other countries that once you introduce assisted suicide, the pressure to expand it to people who are not terminally ill, and for euthanasia — the direct killing of a patient, even without their explicit consent — is not far behind.
In discussing this issue, it is vital that we all recognize that when death approaches, there is always some suffering. Some deaths seem more tragic than others, and bear particular pain to the person and their loved ones. But we need to address that suffering, and not just give up on the patient. Modern medicine has the ability to relieve almost all cases of physical pain in a terminally ill patient. We need to work harder to address the other forms of suffering — the familial, psychological and spiritual pain that accompanies a person’s final illness and passing. We also need to think about preventing the pain and suffering that suicide will leave with families and loved ones, and the sense of guilt that often goes along with that.
That’s why more people need to know about institutions like Calvary Hospital, which provides wonderful support and care for those with terminal cancer. They allow people to exit this life with true dignity and compassion, and utterly reject the idea of giving people lethal overdoses of drugs. People also need to know more about the teachings of the Church on end-of-life issues, and what options are morally acceptable and available. To that end, the New York State Catholic Conference has created a wonderful website, “CatholicEndofLife.org”. This site deserves to be widely known and used by Catholics and others who want to know the truth, and not the lies of the assisted suicide promoters.
Our society spends lots of time and money trying to prevent suicide, particularly for teens and depressed people. It makes no sense — and it will hurt those efforts — to designate it as an acceptable option for elderly and sick people. Think of the awful message that sends — that for some people, we’re all better off if you kill yourself. Talk about creating a culture of death.
We’ve all driven over bridges with signs that say, “Life is Worth Living”. Well, life is always worth living, even when you are terminally ill. That’s the message we should be sending to those who are suffering, and that’s why we must resist any attempt to legalize assisted suicide.