Special Report: Assisted Suicide (revised Dec. 21, 2016)

Ongoing debate over the legalization of assisted suicide, often referred to as “Death with Dignity” on legislative packages, has often arisen in various states at election time. Most recently, voters in Colorado approved Proposition 106 by a 64.87 percent to 35.13 percent margin, making assisted death legal among patients with a terminal illness who receive a prognosis of death within six months. With this, Colorado joins Oregon (End of Life Option Act, 1994/1997); California (End of Life Option Act, 2015); Washington (Death with Dignity Act, 2008); and Vermont (Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act, 2013) as states that have specific legislation allowing assisted suicide. Montana does not currently have a statute safeguarding physician-assisted death. In 2009, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled nothing in the state law prohibited a physician from honoring a terminally ill, mentally competent patient’s request by prescribing medication to hasten the patient’s death.1

Resources from the Florida Bishops Conference

Resources approved by the Catholic bishops of Florida, are provided to assist with advance care planning. Designating a health care surrogate and providing guidance for end-of-life decisions is the best way to ensure that morally acceptable procedures are followed if you become incapacitated or unable to express your wishes in the event of a medical emergency.

The Catholic Declaration of Life and Death (CDLD) is the only health care advance directive that is promulgated by the Catholic bishops of Florida. This directive conforms to both Florida law and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Confer with your parish priest if using other advance care planning documents or resources.

The CDLD, in English and Spanish, as well as a new brochure; A Catholic Introduction to End-of-Life Planning is available on the Florida Catholic Conference website: www.flaccb.org/end-of-life-care.

The issue

The topic of assisted suicide was first introduced to state legislatures in the United States in 1906, when political debates over assisted suicide were recorded in both the Ohio and Iowa legislatures. The Ohio debate in 1906, defeated by a vote of 79-23, was spurred by heiress Anna S. Hall, whose mother died a painful death from cancer.

According to the 1996 PBS documentary, The Kevorkian Verdict, Dr. Jack Kevorkian brought the issue back into the public arena by assisting 100 Michigan residents in carrying out suicide. On November 22, 1998, on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, who suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was this broadcast that triggered intense debate in medical, legal and media circles. Dr. Kevorkian was subsequently found guilty of second degree murder.

More recently, the 2014 death of Britanny Maynard, who suffered from brain cancer and moved from California to Oregon to end her life, led to a renewed debate and interest in legislation either banning or allowing assisted suicide. The Maynard case has become the centerpiece of the “Compassion & Choices” (formerly the Hemlock Society) campaign to legalize assisted suicide, and her husband has become a paid spokesperson for C&C.

Secular understanding of physician-assisted suicide

According to the Death with Dignity National Center, one organization at the forefront of this movement, the greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one’s own desires and beliefs. From advance directives to physician-assisted dying, death with dignity is a movement to provide options for the dying to control one’s own end-of-life care and time.

The Church’s teachings

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Administrative Committee issued the following statement on euthanasia in September 1991:

“As Catholic leaders and moral teachers, we believe that life is the most basic gift of a loving God — a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion. Our tradition, declaring a moral obligation to care for our own life and health and to seek such care from others, recognizes that we are not morally obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances. But that tradition clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly intend to cause one’s own death, or the death of an innocent victim, by action or omission.”

Likewise, a statement from the Second Vatican Council declared that “euthanasia and willful suicide” are “offenses against life itself” which “poison civilization.” It went on to say that 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, Gaudium et Spes, Dec. 1965).

Pope St. John Paul II issued a Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980 in which he proclaimed that if we are to understand death with dignity, we must first accept the dignity of life, a gift that springs from God and is priceless. We are to respect this God-given dignity and be heralds of a culture of life. This culture of life rejects all forms of euthanasia.

One of the closing thoughts of the declaration was the following: “It is true that death marks the end of our earthly existence, but at the same time it opens the door to immortal life. Therefore, all must prepare themselves for this event in the light of human values, and Christians even more so in the light of faith.”

 The USCCB and the American Medical Association

In addition to citing Catholic teaching and the catechism, the USCCB cites the American Medical Association (AMA) on the issue. For example, an excerpt from the AMA is cited in Assisted Suicide: What Is at Stake?­: “Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” In another USCCB report, Physician-assisted Suicide: The Wrong Approach to End-of-Life Care, F. Michael Gloth, M.D., writes: “The American Medical Association affirms that patients should not be abandoned simply because a cure may be impossible, as now happens too often. Multidisciplinary interventions should be sought, including specialty consultation, hospice care, spiritual support, family counseling and other assistance. Patients near the end of life deserve to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy, and good communication.”

Of particular poignancy are these lines from the Hippocratic Oath: “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. Above all, I must not play at God.”

Pope Francis on the issue

In an address in November 2014, Pope Francis clearly denounced assisted suicide as a “false sense of compassion,” a “sin against the Creator,” and a symptom of today’s throw-away culture which views the sick and elderly as a drain on society. The pope stated that it is unlawful to take a life and told the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors, “Your work wants to witness by word and by example that human life is always sacred, valuable and inviolable. And as such, it must be loved, defended and cared for.”

By the numbers

Six states have legalized physician-assisted suicide: California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Vermont through legislation, and in Montana it was declared legal via court ruling.

44 states consider assisted suicide illegal

27 states introduced bills to legalize assisted suicide in 2017

0: the number of federal laws on euthanasia and assisted suicide

47 percent of Catholics say that assisted suicide is morally acceptable compared to 77 percent of non-churchgoers.

A total of 69 percent of Americans support physician-assisted suicide in 2016, up from 36 percent in 1950.

Sources: ProCon.org 2015 and Gallup 2016.