Physician-assisted suicide was legalized in the state of Oregon in 1994. While the number of cases began to grow gradually, not enough attention was given to the issue around the United States. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court rejected the idea that there is a constitutional right to assisted suicide. Our concern must continue to develop.
In recent years, support for physician-assisted suicide has grown. The state of Washington passed a law in its favor in 2008. Developments in other parts of the United States, in the West and here in New England, are taking place. In this context, it is important to recognize the statement against physician-assisted suicide which was passed, by a vote of 191-1, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this past month. The document is titled, "To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide."
The fundamental principles involve a call for attention. We believe that life is the most basic gift of a loving God, a gift over which we have supervision but not absolute dominion. The Second Vatican Council declared, "Euthanasia and willful suicide are offenses against life itself which poison civilization; they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the Creator" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 27).
The founders of our country articulated this principle in the Declaration of Independence, when they indicated that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We generally react with a pronounced hostility when we hear the word "euthanasia." Some have the custom today, therefore, of camouflaging that reality by calling it physician-assisted suicide. They would attempt to describe the action as a medical procedure. No question about it, the procedure is euthanasia.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2277) states very clearly, "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded."
The habit of changing vocabulary is once again in vogue. As the Catholic bishops state, the organization leading the campaign for physician-assisted suicide, the Hemlock Society – whose very name reminded people of the harsh reality of death by poison – has become "Compassion and Choices." The change of name does not mitigate the reality involved. As we recall, hemlock is a draught prepared from a poisonous plant, reportedly the poison given to Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher.
The practice of physician-assisted suicide becomes convincingly irresponsible as we see the numbers grow. They are increasing in Oregon and Washington. Even more telling is the experience in Holland, which has endorsed the practice for more than 30 years. As is stated by the Catholic bishops, "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."
Notice should be taken as well from reports in Holland that indicate the high numbers of victims of euthanasia, the collaboration of doctors and heirs in facilitating euthanasia, and the ever-larger numbers of people who are being put to death despite their opposition to euthanasia.
We are called to be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives, as the bishops state.
We also understand that, as the Catechism tells us, "Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means" (n. 2278-2279).
The highest canons of civilization call us to assist the sick, the vulnerable and the dying with our attention, support and compassion. As the bishops say, "Compassion 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."
Once again, we are called to be messengers of the Gospel of Life.
Archbishop’s Annual Appeal 2011
The Appeal total currently is $9,215,526, which is $628,396 higher than our amount at this time last year. It appears clear that our results this year will be the highest ever. You understand convincingly that these returns enable us to expand our services to meet more effectively the growing needs of people who are suffering from the ravages of lost jobs, economic agonies, and other serious difficulties. Contributions are welcome until the end of the calendar year. You continue to remind us of what it means to be a better experience of the Church under God. You have my most profound gratitude.