Afraid to Die? US Bishops Propose "Infinitely Better Way"

Prelates Approve Statement on Physician Assisted Suicide

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 16, 2011 ( The dying process can be frightening, but society can be judged on how it responds to these fears, according to the U.S. bishops in a new document on physician assisted suicide.

The bishops are in Seattle for their spring general meeting and approved today a statement titled «To Live Each Day With Dignity.»

«A caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives. When people are tempted to see their own lives as diminished in value or meaning, they most need the love and assistance of others to assure them of their inherent worth,» the statement affirmed.

The document offers a brief history of the development on debates regarding physician assisted suicide. It affirms that — contrary to marketing strategies — the drive to legalize this crime does not enhance the freedom of those with serious health conditions.

«Suicidal persons become increasingly incapable of appreciating options» and have a «kind of tunnel vision that sees relief only in death. They need help to be freed from their suicidal thoughts through counseling and support and, when necessary and helpful, medication,» the bishops declared.

Furthermore, «apparently free choices may be unduly influenced by the biases and wishes of others,» they warned. «By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message — before anyone signs a form to accept this alleged benefit — that they may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy.»


The bishops’ document notes that such a biased judgment «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 are dependent on others. If these persons say they want to die, others may be tempted to regard this not as a call for help but as the reasonable response to what they agree is a meaningless life.»

Such a backward view may even lead those who choose to live to be seen as «selfish or irrational, as a needless burden on others.»

The prelates acknowledged that the suffering of chronic or terminal illness is often severe. This suffering cries out for compassion, they stated. «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.»

Practical matters

The bishops also warned of a «slippery slope» that begins when life is taken in the name of compassion.

«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,» they noted. «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. 

«Psychologically, as well, the physician who has begun to offer death as a solution for some illnesses is tempted to view it as the answer for an ever-broader range of problems.»

There is also the possibility that government programs and private insurers may limit support for care that could extend life, while emphasizing the «cost-effective» solution of a doctor-prescribed death, the prelates warned. «Why would medical professionals spend a lifetime developing the empathy and skills needed for the difficult but important task of providing optimum care, once society has authorized a ‘solution’ for suffering patients that requires no skill at all? Once some people have become candidates for the inexpensive treatment of assisted suicide, public and private payers for health coverage also find it easy to direct life-affirming resources elsewhere.»

Unfinished business

The bishops’ document affirms: «There is an infinitely better way to address the needs of people with serious illnesses.»

«Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome,» the bishops clarified. «Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear that they might have the side effect of shortening life.»

But effective palliative care allows patients to «devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves.»

«No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless,» the prelates declared.

«When we grow old or sick and we are tempted to lose heart, we should be surrounded by people who ask ‘How can we help?'» the bishops concluded. «We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with a compassion grounded in respect, offering genuine support in our final days. The choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations.»

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