Catholic Bishops to Vote on Document Opposing Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 1, 2011   |   11:58AM   |   Washington, DC

The nation’s Catholic bishops are expected to debate and vote on a new document later this month that would renew their opposition to the practice of assisted suicide at a time when activists are trying to expand it.

With the states of Oregon and Washington having legalized the practice and euthanasia supporters trying to do the same in Montana, the bishops have announced they will debate and vote on a document on assisted suicide at their Spring General Assembly taking place June 15-17 in Seattle. The document, To Live Each Day with Dignity, will be the first statement on assisted suicide by the full body of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), but the Catholic Church has long opposed the practice.

The head of the pro-life outreach of the Catholic bishops says the statement is needed because assisted suicide proponents are taking the practice to other states — though a coalition of doctors, pro-life advocates, Catholic officials and disability rights advocates have held them at bay in states like California, Hawaii and Vermont.

“After years of relative inaction following legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in 1994, the assisted suicide movement has shown a strong resurgence in activity,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

“This renewed effort has led to the passage of an Oregon-style law in Washington by popular referendum in November 2008, a state supreme court decision essentially declaring that assisted suicide is not against public policy in Montana, and concerted efforts to pass legislation in several New England and Western states,” DiNardo said. “The Church needs to respond in a timely and visible way to this renewed challenge, which will surely be pursued in a number of states in the years to come.”

The draft statement speaks of the hardships and fears of patients facing terminal illness and the importance of life-affirming palliative care. It cites the Church’s concern for those who are tempted to commit suicide, its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, and the consistency of this stance with the principle of equal and inherent human rights and the ethical principles of the medical profession.

Countering two claims of the assisted suicide movement, that its agenda affirms patients’ “choices” and expresses “compassion” for their suffering, the statement says physician-assisted suicide does not promote compassion because its focus is not on eliminating suffering, but on eliminating the patient. True compassion, it states, dedicates itself to meeting patients’ needs and presupposes a commitment to their equal worth. The statement says that “compassion” that is not rooted in such respect inevitably finds more and more people whose suffering is considered serious enough for assisted death, such as those with chronic illness and disabilities.

According to the statement, the practice also undermines patients’ freedom by putting pressure on them, once society has officially declared the suicides of certain people to be good and acceptable while working to prevent the suicides of others. Undermining the value of some people’s lives will undermine respect for their freedom as well, the statement says, citing legal systems such as the Netherlands, where voluntary assisted suicide has led to involuntary euthanasia.

The statement argues that assisted suicide is not an addition to palliative care, but a poor substitute that can ultimately become an excuse for denying better medical care to seriously ill people, including those who never considered suicide an option. It concludes by advancing what Pope John Paul II called “the way of love and true mercy,” and calls on Catholics to work with others to uphold the right of each person to live with dignity.

The announcement of the debate and vote follows on a new Gallup poll showing the percentage of people who say “doctor-assisted suicide” is morally acceptable has dropped to its lowest level in 8 years.

Currently, 48 percent of Americans say “doctor-assisted suicide” is morally wrong while just 45 percent say it is morally okay. The views of Americans on the subject has bounced around slightly over the years with a majority of 51 percent in 2008 saying the practice is morally acceptable. The last time just 45 percent of Americans said it was all right was 2003.

Gallup found 51 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and just 32 percent of Republicans who say they find assisted suicide morally acceptable. When looking at an age breakdown, the views of Americans are largely consistent with just 46 percent of those 18-34, 45 percent of those 35-54 and 43 percent of those 55 and older saying assisted suicide is morally okay.

Had Gallup used the term “assisted suicide” without including the word, “doctor,” support likely would have decreased further.