In 1994 Oregon passed a law allowing physicians to prescribe deadly drugs for some patients in order for them to take their own lives. Since then, Montana (1995), Washington (2008), Vermont (2013), California (2015), Colorado (2016) and Washington, DC (2016) have all passed laws or court rulings allowing doctor-prescribed suicide.
This movement continues across our land. Much of the momentum began from the story of a 29-year-old cancer patient from California named Brittany Maynard. She announced in the fall of 2014 that she did not want to face the expected suffering associated with her brain cancer and therefore would move to Oregon so she could take her life using its assisted suicide law. Her story became a media sensation and she then became a spokesperson for the group called Compassion & Choices. Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, is the primary organization leading the drive for cultural acceptance and legalization of assisted suicide. This organization is well funded through the efforts of a large fundraising staff, raising money and awareness through wealthy and committed donors like George Soros.
Are we headed there too? Last December an article in the Rapid City Journal revealed that in November 2018 the people of the State of South Dakota could find a ballot measure on doctor-prescribed suicide under the misleading title, “Death with Dignity.” This ballot measure will give voters the opportunity to vote into law doctor-assisted suicide.
Though this campaign to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide has been rejected by most policymakers in our society, there is still great cause for concern as the throwaway attitude in our culture deepens. Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the doctor’s call to assist in healing.
Proponents know these facts and thus avoid terms such as “assisting suicide” and instead use code words such as “aid in dying.” These proponents cite that it should be a person’s right to choose to end his or her life so as to alleviate their suffering on his or her own terms, enabling them to die with “dignity.” They see this as a form of compassion and choice.
“The idea that assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering is equally misguided. It eliminates the person, and results in suffering for those left behind — grieving families and friends, and other vulnerable people who may be influenced by this event to see death as an escape. The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe. They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to “suffer with” another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It 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. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem. Taking life in the name of compassion also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions” (USCCB, To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide).
In the case of doctor-assisted suicide, the “dignity” of the terminally ill is ultimately stripped away because the dignity of the sick person is placed purely on a subjective level. This can easily lead down a slippery slope when subjectivity determines the value of a human life.
Doctor-assisted suicide is not free choice because it’s often driven by depression and hopelessness. The assisted suicide agenda can actually increase the suffering of isolation and hopelessness often experienced by seriously ill people. Seeing their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems only magnifies this kind of suffering. For example, people dying under Oregon’s law more often cite as a reason for their choice the feeling of being a burden rather than any concern about pain. There is also proof that in Oregon general suicides have risen dramatically since assisted suicide is promoted as a “good.”
Documentation suggests where there is legalized assisted suicide there is less commitment to palliative care. Government programs and private insurers have even limited support for care that could extend life, while emphasizing the “cost-effective” solution of a doctor-prescribed death. This was reality for Stephanie Packer, a California wife and mother of four who was diagnosed with a terminal form of scleroderma. Her insurance company refused to cover the cost of her medical treatment. When asked if her insurance company would cover the doctor-prescribed suicide drugs, the company told her, “Yes, we do provide that to our patients, and you would only have to pay $1.20 for the medication.”
A society that devalues some people’s lives, by hastening and facilitating their deaths, will ultimately lose respect for their other rights and freedoms. The government, by rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, implicitly communicates the message that some may be better off dead. Assisted suicide is also a recipe for abuse of elderly and disabled persons because it can put lethal drugs within reach of abusers. No oversight and no witnesses are required once the lethal drugs leave the pharmacy. There is also no requirement to notify a family member or emergency contact for a person taking their own life. Imagine the trauma the family would face in such a situation.
There are many other reasons why doctor-prescribed suicide is not good for this country, the State of South Dakota and for families — too many to lay out in this article. But it is important that in supporting a culture of life, we begin to speak out against this serious challenge and deadly issue now, in our parishes, in our families and in our communities. We do not want our state to be the next one to support a culture of death in allowing suicide for its citizens. Resources can be found at www.usccb.org/ToLiveEachDay.
In conclusion, from an article which appeared in Crisis Magazine by Maria Cintorino:
“Genuine death with dignity, dying naturally, is courageous for it dares to live despite suffering. It affirms the dignity of the human person as grounded in the image and likeness of God and recognizes that the beauty of life entails both the moments of joy and health as well as the sorrows and sufferings which are part of life. Dying with true dignity means accepting and embracing the suffering of a terminal illness and the death which ensues, no matter how prolonged the process may be. True death with dignity does not “opt” out of life — it fearlessly charges on as it recognizes the immense power of redemptive suffering and affirms the value of each human being who suffers.”