Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Physician Assisted Suicide

Here at the Seminary we are working on a half-day workshop to brief seminarians, priests and others on the moral, medical, and political dimensions of the assisted suicide referendum which will be placed before Massachusetts voters this Fall.  As we make these preparations, I wanted to share some of my preliminary reflections with you, and recommend a short video on the medical dimensions of the question by Jesuit Provincial Father Myles Sheehan, SJ.

As you have, no doubt, have heard, a ballot initiative will appear on the November Ballot in Massachusetts which would permit assisted suicide in certain circumstances.   This grave matter has been addressed by many articulate observers, not  the least of which was Cardinal O’Malley in his Red Mass homily this past year:

“The notion that assisting a suicide shows compassion is misguided,” he told the assembled jurists. “It eliminates the person but causes suffering to those left behind and pushes vulnerable people to see death as an escape. According to the National Council on Disability: ‘As the experience in the Netherlands demonstrates there is little doubt that legalizing assisted suicide generates strong pressures upon individuals and families to utilize the option, and leads very quickly to coercion and involuntary euthanasia.’

But why is there any support at all for such a horrific proposal?  The answer comes, I believe, from an understanding of the fear people have of dying a painful death with a loss of dignity and being a burden to their families.

But is assisted suicide an answer to such fears?  The answer is simply no.  

Perhaps it is said best by the USCCB Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic healthcare Services:”

Above all, as a witness to its faith, a Catholic health care institution will be a community of respect, love, and support to patients or residents and their families as they face the reality of death. What is hardest to face is the process of dying itself, especially the dependency, the helplessness, and the pain that so often accompany terminal illness. One of the primary purposes of medicine in caring for the dying is the relief of pain and the suffering caused by it. Effective management of pain in all its forms is critical in the appropriate care of the dying.

The truth that life is a precious gift from God has profound implications for the question of stewardship over human life. We are not the owners of our lives and, hence, do not have absolute power over life. We have a duty to preserve our life and to use it for the glory of God, but the duty to preserve life is not absolute, for we may reject life-prolonging procedures that are insufficiently beneficial or excessively burdensome. Suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options.”