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Living and dying with dignity

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Last June, the bishops of the United States approved and published a superb statement against Physician-Assisted Suicide entitled, "To Live Each Day with Dignity." It was a response of spiritual shepherds to wolves in white medical jackets who pretend that the compassionate response to those who are contemplating taking their lives is to give them the drugs to do it.

The movement in favor of physician-assisted suicide -- which is legal in Oregon and Washington state -- thinks that present circumstances harbinger an opening to persuading legislatures to allow what they morbidly dub "the ultimate right of the 21st century," the right to kill oneself. With the baby boom generation now becoming seniors, with all the concern about the rationing of health care costs, and with an increase in the number of those with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, assisted suicide proponents are trying to make a move for legalization in states they think might be friendly. "With expanded funding from wealthy donors," the bishops noted, "assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation, and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message."

Massachusetts is one of those targeted states. Last April, drivers exiting the Callahan Tunnel in East Boston were confronted with a billboard paid for by the Final Exit Network suggesting that to die with dignity means to do so on one's own terms. White letters against a black background proclaimed, "Irreversible illness? Unbearable suffering? Die with Dignity." Now, proponents of physician-assisted suicide have taken the steps that will lead to this issue being voted on this upcoming November. Bay State Catholics have a special duty to be aware of the reasons why physician assisted suicide is always false compassion, what Blessed John Paul II called, "a perversion of mercy."

The bishops observed in their statement that many people today fear the dying process and "being kept alive past life's natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others." They went on to add, "Our society can be judged by how we respond to those fears" and to those who have those fears "at the most vulnerable time in their lives."

Proponents of physician-assisted suicide believe that the proper way to respond is by facilitating "self-inflicted death" by giving doctors -- who by profession are supposed to help save lives -- the permission to kill through prescribing or administering a poisonous drug overdose when a patient requests it. People should have the right to end their lives, proponents assert, and doctors should have the legal right to "help" them by writing a prescription for lethal drugs.

The Church -- and many others -- recognize that eliminating the person in order to eliminate the person's suffering is not an act of compassion. Most in our society readily understand that when someone is contemplating suicide at any age of life, he or she is normally suffering from a depression triggered by very real setbacks and serious disappointments and sees death as the only path to relief. The psychological professions know that people with such temptations need help to be freed not from life but from these suicidal thoughts through counseling, support, and when necessary, medication. Most in society grasp that the compassionate response to teenagers experiencing a crushing breakup, to unemployed fathers overwhelmed by pressure, to unhappy actresses feeling alone and abandoned, to middle-aged men devastated by scandalous revelations, is never to catalyze their suicide. Heroic police and firemen climb bridges or go out on the ledges of skyscrapers for a reason. Dedicated volunteers staff Samaritan hotlines around the clock for a reason. This same type of care and attention needs to be given by a just and compassionate society to suffering seniors or others with serious illnesses.

"The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe," the bishops wrote. "They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to 'suffer with' another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem."

The bishops pointed out that once we allow doctors to start to kill patients with terminal illnesses, the meaning of the medical profession changes, from one that seeks always to save lives, to one in which it is possible to end them. Once that occurs, then it's a small step to allowing them to assist non-terminal patients in taking their lives and another to putting pressure on those who are in terminal illnesses to do family members and society a "favor" by ending their lives so that medical resources can be spent elsewhere.

"Taking life in the name of compassion," they stated, "also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy. Once they convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion." Moreover, this agenda "actually risks adding to the suffering of seriously ill people. Their worst suffering is often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The realization that others -- or society as a whole -- may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify this kind of suffering." Not only can this undermine health care providers' ability and willingness to provide effective palliative care or pain management, but it can also create the conditions in which society can begin to believe that sick seniors or those with difficult illnesses are "better off dead," that assisted suicide is an "inexpensive treatment" that will allow government or private insurers to direct medical resources to those with lives others consider more valuable. Those with illnesses and disabilities are right, the bishops said, to be "deservedly suspicious when the freedom society most eagerly offers them is the 'freedom' to take their lives." To help them end their lives is "a victory not for freedom but for the worst form of neglect."

There is an "infinitely better way" to care for the needs of people with serious illnesses," what Blessed John Paul II called "the way of love and mercy." This involves a "readiness to surround patients with love, support, and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering." It involves "effective palliative care" to treat the pain they're undergoing. Even the Boston Globe recognized, in a June 6, 2011 editorial on the death of Dr. Kevorkian, that "with proper palliative care, patients shouldn't need to take their own lives." The bishops added, "Learning how to face this last stage of our earthly lives is one of the most important and meaningful things each of us will do, and caregivers who help people through this process are also doing enormously important work. As Christians we believe that even suffering itself need not be meaningless -- for as Pope John Paul II showed during his final illness, suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of others." To die with dignity is not to commit suicide, but to suffer and die within this mystery of the Lord's own death.

The bishops ended their statement with a specific call to Catholics to become "messengers of the Gospel of life" and "leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives." Catholics, they said, need to be on the front lines not only in preventing legislative enactment of assisted-suicide but also in caring for those with chronic or terminal illnesses. They reminded us that "the choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations." They summoned all of us to get together to "build a world in which love is stronger than death."

Father Roger J. Landry is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua parish in New Bedford and the executive editor of The Anchor, the official newspaper of the diocese of Fall River, MA.

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