A Commonwealth of Kevorkians or Good Samaritans?, The Anchor, September 30, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
September 30, 2011

On September 7, Attorney General Martha Coakley certified an initiative petition aimed at legalizing physician-assisted suicide in our state. Dubbed by euthanasia supporters the “Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act,” it must now obtain 68,911 signatures by December 7 to bring it before the members of the state legislature, who will then be able back the proposal as legislation, offer alternative legislation or permit the petition to be decided at the ballot box in November 2012 if supporters are able to garner an additional 11,485 signatures.

The initiative petition is another attempt by which physician-assisted suicide proponents are trying to bring medically-facilitated euthanasia to the Commonwealth. Legislation was unsuccessfully proposed on Beacon Hill in 1995, 1997, 2009 and earlier this year. With the baby boom generation now becoming seniors, with the ubiquitous concern about the rationing of health care, with an increase in the number of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and with many fearing being kept alive in intolerable pain past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology, assisted suicide proponents and their wealthy supporters are trying to get Massachusetts to become the third state after Oregon and Washington to permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients.

Back in 1995 and 1997 when the first bills to legalize euthanasia were introduced here, the Massachusetts bishops responded with a vigorous “In Support of Life” educational campaign that mobilized citizens, both Catholic and non-Catholic, to recognize that the false compassion of “mercy killing” and rise up to defeat the attempts to make it legal. Eliminating a person in order to eliminate the person’s suffering, citizens grasped, is not an act of compassion. Rather, helping someone to commit suicide, instead of treating the psychological issues that lead someone to contemplate ending one’s life, is a perversion of mercy. True compassion, the “In Support of Life” campaign stressed, means “suffering with” another person, maintaining solidarity with them — not putting lethal drugs in the hands of those suffering and leaving them to act on their suicidal impulses.

Catholics citizens and institutions throughout Massachusetts are almost certainly going to have to play another major role if this new, aggressive and well-financed attempt to legalize self-inflicted death in our state is going to be defeated. Catholics should begin to prepare for the battle by studying the superb June 2011 statement of the U.S. Bishops entitled “To Live Each Day with Dignity” (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/assisted-suicide/to-live-each-day). They should also avail themselves of the resources available through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (www.macathconf.org/EOLresources.htm).

The most prominent Catholic teacher in Massachusetts, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, got the educational campaign off to a powerful start by prophetically sounding the alarm to Catholic attorneys, judges and legal personnel at the September 18 Red Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. He summoned them to use all their talents “with courage and resolve” to defeat efforts to allow doctors to pervert the medical profession in order to kill rather than to save. The initiative petition, he underlined, is an “attempt to undermine the sacredness of human life that demands an energetic response from Catholics and other citizens of good will.”

He acknowledged the fears that many have today of a “protracted period of decline at the end of life,” in which they may experience pain, loss of control, dementia, abandonment, and becoming a burden on others. But then he declared, “We as a society will be judged by how we respond to these fears.” The way to respond to the fear is not to allow those with the fears to kill themselves, but to give them greater attention, love and care. “Suicide is a tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent,” he stressed. Allowing doctors to help patients kill themselves, he underlined, is a “corruption of the medical profession,” a clear violation of the Hippocratic oath by which doctors promise, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone even if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.”

Physician-assisted suicide, the Cardinal continued, sends a chilling message about the values of those societies who support or allow it, and these values will not be satisfied merely by facilitating the premature deaths of those who request it. “By rescinding the legal protection for the lives of a category of people, the government sends a message that some persons are better off dead. This biased judgment about the diminished value of life for someone with a serious illness or disability is fueled by the excessively high premium our culture places on productivity and autonomy which tends to discount the lives of those who have a disability or who are suffering or dependent on others. If these people claim they want to die, others might be tempted to regard this not as a call for help, but as a reasonable response to what they agree is a meaningless life. Those who choose to live may then be viewed as selfish or irrational, as a needless burden on others, and might even be encouraged to see themselves in that way.” He referenced the conclusion of the National Council on Disability, which said that “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.”

The “collateral damage” of the assisted suicide agenda, Cardinal O’Malley accentuated, is that “legalizing assisted suicide leads to more suicides,” something that has been demonstrated unmistakably in Oregon. “A decade after Oregon’s law allowing physician assisted suicide took effect, suicide had become the leading cause of ‘injury death’ in Oregon and the second leading cause of death among those between 15 and 34 years of age. The suicide rate in Oregon was in decline until legalizing physician assisted suicide. The suicide rate has been rising since 2000 and by 2007 was already 35 percent higher than the national average — without counting physician assisted suicides of seriously ill patients which Oregon law does not allow to be counted as suicides and without counting 1,000 failed attempted suicides each year.”

The data and experience from Oregon demonstrate that legalizing physician assisted suicide promotes suicide in general. “We hope that the citizens of the commonwealth will not be seduced by the language,” Cardinal O’Malley stressed. “Dignity, mercy and compassion are [being] used to disguise the sheer brutality of helping some kill themselves. A vote for physician assisted suicide is a vote for suicide.” It is also, as the experience in the Netherlands shows us, the first step in making possible and “justifiable” the murder of those whose lives medical personnel, insurance companies, impatient family members and others may no longer deem valuable.  “God’s approach is expensive,” Cardinal O’Malley added with a touch of realistic humor in the midst of a somber topic, “and the insurance companies would not be in favor.”

In response to a culture aggressively pushing death, Catholics must be resolute in defending the dignity of life and in protecting those at the end of life. “In the eyes of the world,” Cardinal O’Malley stated, “those who are in the last stages of life are somehow diminished in their humanity and should be eliminated. We must see them through God’s eyes and recognize that each and every person is created in his image and likeness and that we are all connected to God and to each other. We are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s helper. Cain, who forgot he was his brother’s keeper, ended up becoming his executioner. ‘Thou shall not kill’ is God’s law and it is written in our hearts by our Creator.”

This initiative petition is a time in which all citizens of the Commonwealth have the chance to choose the path of Cain and Kevorkian or the path of the Good Samaritan. It’s the path of the executioner or of the truly compassionate care-giver, the life-affirming hospice nurse, the 24-hour operator at suicide prevention hotlines, and the heroic firefighter or policeman who climbs bridges, risking his life to save those who are contemplating ending their own. The path of the true brother’s keeper will also be shown in the educational work of those who begin anew to form and inform others about the dignity of every human life and persuade legislators and fellow citizens to rise up to defeat soundly this evil initiative. It’s a choice between life or death.