Posts Tagged ‘Assisted Suicide’

The Danger Signs on Suicide are Clear

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

It is hard not to have sympathy for those who are advocating for the legalization of assisted suicide as a way of alleviating suffering. Suffering is a terrible reality of human life, an experience of evil that cannot be avoided. Without a Christian understanding of the meaning of suffering (see St. John Paul’s magnificent letter Salvifici Doloris), it is a fearsome thing to face.

But even a non-believer should be able to discern the clear danger signs about the inevitable effects of legalizing any form of suicide, and step away from that precipice.

The experience of European countries that have legalized assisted suicide are test cases. We can see the way that the practice spread from the terminally ill, to those with chronic illnesses, to those with psychiatric or developmental problems, to minors, and utimately to people who were put to death even though they never requested it. It is abundantly clear that there are no limiting principles that can stop the spread of assisted suicide, and its progress to outright euthanasia.

The danger signs can also be seen in the most recent statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control on the incidence of suicide in the United States.

The situation is truly alarming — suicide has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Here are some of the lowlights of the report:

  • From 1999 through 2014, the suicide rate increased 24%, with the pace of increase accellerating after 2006.
  • Suicide rates increased from 1999 through 2014 for both males and females and for all ages 10–74.
  • In 2014, the rate for males was more than three times that for females, but the percent increase was greater for females (45% increase) than males (16% increase).
  • Although there were few suicides compared with other age groups, the suicide rate for females aged 10–14 tripled.
  • In both 1999 and 2014, suicide rates were highest among men aged 75 and over. Men aged 45–64 had the second-highest suicide rate for males in 2014 and the largest percent increase (43%) in rates.
  • Suicide is increasing against the backdrop of generally declining mortality, and is currently one of the 10 leading causes of death overall and within each age group 10–64.

With this information, how can it possibly make sense to legalize assisted suicide, which sends a clear, strong message that some lives are not worth living, and that death is the solution? Shouldn’t we instead redouble our efforts to convince people to reject suicide?

Advocates for assisted suicide insist that society defer absolutely to their autonomy, based on a notion that people have absolute liberty to do whatever they like. Yet our society has never done so. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in his famous dissent in the Lochner case, “The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.” The idea that people have complete autonomy is both incoherent and an invitation to anarchy.

Again, the suffering of individuals is compelling and naturally rouses sympathy. We must do everything we can to alleviate the physical, psychological, social, emotional and spiritual suffering of all our brethren.

But the particular desires of individuals cannot be the basis of making law for our entire society. St. Thomas Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good”. The good of all of society must be the controlling concern when we make law, not the idiosyncratic interests of some people or groups.

The danger signs of relaxing our immemorial ban on suicide are very, very clear that it would lead to many more unnecessary and tragic deaths. We must continue to resist any effort to legalize any form of suicide, for the good of all of society.

The Danger is Real

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

One of the common arguments offered by assisted suicide advocates is that the track record of the practice in Oregon shows that there have been no problems.  Just last week, I sat in the courtroom of the Appellate Division and heard the suicide group’s lawyer say that repeatedly and with passion.

The problem for them is, it just isn’t true.  In fact, the most recent report from Oregon bears out all the warnings we’ve been offering about what would happen if it were legalized here in New York:

  • It threatens disabled people — the three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns are not unbearable pain, but instead were decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (96.2%), loss of autonomy (92.4%), and loss of dignity (75.4%).  Legalization of assisted suicide amounts to saying that a life with a disability is not worth living.
  • It ignores mental health problems — Only 3.8% of those who ask for suicide are referred for psychiatric evaluation, even though it’s well-established that those who ask for suicide are frequently suffering from treatable depression.  A recent study of euthanasia in Holland underscores this problem — people with mental illness are not getting psychiatric treatment for their problems and are choosing to kill themselves instead.
  • It harms the elderly — Virtually all those who committed suicide were over 55, and the great majority over 65.  Are we really willing to send the message that suicide is a good thing for elderly people?
  • It threatens vulnerable and isolated people — 62.5% were insured by some kind of government insurance (e.g. Medicaid or Medicare), 26% were widowed, and 27.5% divorced; the median length of their relationship with the doctor who gave them the deadly drugs was only 9 weeks — and at least one person had only known their doctor for one week.
  • There is no supervision to prevent abuse — 79.2% died with no health provider present, and in more than 89% of the cases the prescribing doctor was not present (although he makes the report and signs the death certificate).  So how can we tell if the person was mentally competent, and free of coercion?
  • It’s a danger to others — 86 people got the deadly drugs but didn’t take them, raising the question — what happened to the other drugs?
  • The numbers continue to rise — Every year there’s an increase in people receiving deadly drugs and in those taking them.  It should also be noted that other studies have shown that the overall suicide rate increases in states where assisted suicide is legal.

No matter how the advocates try to twist the language (using the Orwellian term “aid in dying”, as opposed to “assisted suicide”) or spin the numbers, we all know where this is going.  In the European countries that have legalized suicide, it has led to widespread euthanasia, including involuntary killing of patients who never asked for suicide, the killing of children, and the establishment of stand-alone suicide clinics.  Advocates here have already said that they intend to extend the reach of assisted suicide beyond the terminally ill.

The facts are clear — the danger is real.

Opposing Assisted Suicide in the Courts

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

The battle to defend life against the Culture of Death has many fronts.  The most prominent, of course, is the defense of the unborn child in the womb.  But increasingly, we must turn our attention to the end of life, where the weak and vulnerable are the targets of attack.

The movement to legalize assisted suicide has been growing in strength here in the United States.  It has already advanced in Europe, and even in Canada.  But its message of despair is getting more traction here as well.  Only a handful of states have bought the serpent’s message so far, but last year California fell, and that gives the movement considerable momentum.  They are turning their attention — and sending their extremely well-funded lobbyists — into a number of other states, including New York.

The battle over assisted suicide will soon be joined in our State Legislature.  Two bills are pending there, and we expect this legislative session to be the opening round of a long struggle.  I laid out the basic arguments in an earlier blog post.

But the enemies of life are also seeking to obtain their goal in the cheap and easy way — by going to court.  Last year, a group of advocates and patients filed a lawsuit in New York State court in Manhattan, seeking to have our laws against assisted suicide overturned.  Their argument is based on a spurious constitutional argument.  The Attorney General of New York has the duty to defend our law, which gave us some trepidation at the start of the case — the AG is staunchly pro-abortion, and no friend of the cause of life.  But his office did a good job defending the law in the lower court, and were victorious.  But the case is now before an appellate panel, and will eventually be decided by our Court of Appeals.

The time had come for the Church to enter the field.  So, the New York State Catholic Conference has filed an amicus curiae brief, explaining the compelling state interest in banning assisted suicide, and pointing out the dangers to religious liberty if the courts were to overturn the ban.  I was the principal author of the brief, assisted by my colleague Alexis Carra.  If you’re interested in reading the whole brief, you can download it here.

The argument in the brief focuses primarily on the reasons that we have laws against assisted suicide.  This is an important part of defending the current law — depending on the legal standard that the court applies, there must be either a “rational basis” for the law, or it must advance a “compelling government interest”.  I have found that in many cases, there haven’t been sufficient explanations of the moral and religious reasons for a law, or for a request for an exemption from a law.  I’ve seen this in litigation involving abortion, suicide, and religious liberty.  All too often, the argument is presented in a conclusory or perfunctory way.  This has always struck me as a terrible missed opportunity to explain to judges (many of whom have no understanding or sympathy for religious institutions) why these issues matter so much to us, and why we feel so strongly about them.

Another reason for making these arguments is so that they are out there in the public square.  Defenders of traditional moral standards are typically put on the defensive, which allows our adversaries to set the agenda.  It’s also a problem that we frequently make our arguments purely in secular terms, which misses the chance to do some indirect evangelization.  Even though I often like to say that all I care about is winning, in reality all I really care about is spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ by whatever means available.

So, the battle is joined in yet another forum.  No rest for the defenders of life.

Life is Worth Living, Even When You’re Terminally Ill

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

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.