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SOUTH END -- Addressing members of the legal profession at the annual Red Mass Sept. 18, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley spoke out against a recently certified initiative petition seeking to legalize physician assisted suicide in Massachusetts.
"It's another attempt to undermine the sacredness of human life. It demands an energetic response from Catholics and other citizens of good will," said Cardinal O'Malley during his homily at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
The Red Mass -- a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages -- is held to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit in guiding members of the legal profession before the beginning of the judicial year. The Mass takes its name from the red vestments traditionally worn by clergy to represent the Holy Spirit.
On Sept. 7, Attorney General Martha Coakley certified an initiative petition supporting the so-called "Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act." The initiative, if passed into law, would allow a terminally-ill adult to end their life by receiving lethal drugs from their physician, which they would self-administer.
If the petition receives around 69,000 signatures of registered voters, it would pass a major milestone on making its way to the fall 2012 ballot.
Though the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, has issued statements on the ballot initiative petition, this was the cardinal's first public comment on the issue.
"Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a 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 medical profession," he said.
He called physician assisted suicide a violation of the Hippocratic Oath and said that by eliminating the legal protection for a category of people, "the government sends a message that some persons are better off dead."
The cardinal also said that many people fear experiencing pain, the loss of control, dementia, being abandoned, or becoming a burden to others toward the end of their lives.
"We as a society will be judged by how we respond to these very real fears. We must devote more attention to those who might feel that their life is diminished in value or meaning. They need the love and care of others to assure them of their inherent worth," said Cardinal O'Malley.
The cardinal described other ramifications of legalized suicide such as some responding to a suffering person's request to die as reasonable choice, rather than a call for help. He said that those who choose to live "may then be viewed as selfish or irrational, as a needless burden on others. They might even be encouraged to see themselves in that way."
Citing both the National Council on Disability and the example of the Netherlands, where both euthanasia and assisted suicide are permitted, the cardinal said the availability of legalized suicide creates pressure on individuals and families to choose the option, and moves toward coercion and involuntary euthanasia.
He said legalized suicide leads to more suicide in general calling it the "collateral damage of the assisted suicide agenda."
He referred to Oregon, which passed a similar initiative also called the "Death with Dignity Act" in 1997. The cardinal said that ten years after this law took effect, suicide became the leading cause of injury related death in Oregon and the second leading cause of death there between those aged between 15 and 34. He also said that in 2007, the Oregon suicide rate was 35 percent higher than the national average, not including the physician assisted suicides, which Oregon law prevents being tallied as suicides.
"We hope that the citizens of the commonwealth will not be seduced by the language, 'dignity, mercy, compassion,' which are used to disguise the sheer brutality of helping someone to kill themselves," said Cardinal O'Malley.