Fighting to Live Versus Dying to Die

U.S. Bishops Challenge the Right-to-Die Movement

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 6, 2011 ( Political advocacy for assisted suicide in the United States dates back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and the failed Ohio euthanasia bill of 1906.

Activists organized themselves in the 1930s around the former Protestant minister Charles Potter (who first abandoned the Baptist and then the Unitarian church because both were too conservative), and formed the Euthanasia Society of America. The movement remained on the social fringe until the 1970s, when the case of Karen Ann Quinlan mobilized its energies.

The 21-year-old Quinlan was diagnosed in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) after suffering severe brain injury from oxygen deprivation. After several months of ventilator support without improvement, her parents requested that the hospital remove the ventilator and leave her to die.

The battle was fought in the courts and on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. Although the central ethical question concerned the removal of life support and not intentional euthanasia, the case became a cause célèbre for the still fringe right-to-die movement, which found its social voice arguing for the inhumanity of forcing disabled patients to linger in their disabilities.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of her parent’s petition, and the ventilator was removed in 1976. But because Karen’s family continued to feed her, she lived for another nine years. The courts and the country were not yet ready for the «merciful starvation» requests that were bound to follow in the 1990s. And follow they did.

In 1990, the euthanasia movement mobilized around the family of Nancy Cruzan, a 33-year-old woman diagnosed in a PVS after suffering a brain injury in a terrible car accident. The family petitioned to remove her feeding tube and the U.S. Supreme Court, after some hesitation, ruled in favor of the request. Her starvation lasted for 12 days.

The liberty to refuse life support was only an interim step for euthanasia activists. All along the goal was full-fledged intentional self-killing legally facilitated by the medical community, or physician assisted suicide (PAS).

In 1970, British-born euthanasia activist Derek Humphry, who founded the Hemlock Society USA in 1980, facilitated the suicide of his own wife, Jean. Derek mixed a lethal cocktail of drugs and dispensed it into Jean’s morning cup of coffee. She thanked him, said good-bye and drank the coffee.

He memorialized her suicide in a book called «Jean’s Way: A Love Story.» Humphry’s Hemlock Society, now using the euphemistic moniker Compassion & Choices, has sponsored most all right-to-die initiatives of the past 20 years.

In 1997, Oregon became the first state to legalize PAS with its Death with Dignity Act. Activists in Washington State tried unsuccessfully the same year to pass a similar law; and finally 10 years later achieved their goal in shepherding the passage of Washington’s Death with Dignity Act (2008).

In state judiciaries, the Florida and Alaska Supreme Courts both refused to find constitutional rights to suicidal assistance in 1997 and 2001, respectively. Unfortunately, Montana’s Supreme Court in Baxter v. Montana (2009) granted protection to patients seeking death through lethal prescription and to the doctors who accommodate their requests.

Euthanasia and PAS have gone from fringe issues nurtured by voices on the cultural margins to centerpieces on the table of the Western culture wars. Nobody interested in preserving the norm against intentional killing and defending against the deputizing of physicians as killers of their patients can remain indifferent to the cancer being vigorously advanced by right-to-die (and-kill) activists.

The USCCB responds

A recent reply to the movement came from the American bishops. At its June General Assembly in Seattle, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a policy statement on the issue of PAS, «To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Assisted Suicide

The text is a successor document to the Conference’s 1991 Statement on Euthanasia, the Vatican’s important Declaration on Euthanasia (1980), and the many conference «fact sheets» over the years on end-of-life issues. The USCCB press release says the text «marks the first time the full body of bishops has issued a statement devoted to this issue.»

Following the rhetorical approach used in their 2009 document on assisted reproduction, «Live-giving Love in an Age of Technology,» the statement is written in a non-technical, even folksy style, with concise sentences, no complicated footnotes and a tone of urgency throughout. It is relatively brief, with only six pages of text followed by a seventh listing helpful references to Vatican and USCCB documents on related issues. It is written to be read by non-experts, which is both a strength and a weakness of the document.

The document is divided into six sections: an introduction; a summary of the threat posed by the campaign to legalize PAS; a section debunking the illusion that self-killing is an expression of authentic freedom; a refutation of the euphemism that assisting in another’s suicide is truly compassionate; the proposing of a «better way»; and a conclusion.

The document sets forth 10 salient points worth mentioning:

1. People who request death are vulnerable. They commonly suffer from clinical depression. They should be treated for depression, not aided in killing themselves.

2. Chronically and terminally ill patients are liable to suffer undue influence from the biases and wishes of others, often from those who are physically strong and impatient with weakness and disability.

3. Proposals to legalize PAS define a small class of people — those with «terminal illness» — as legally exempt from laws against assisting in the suicide of another. But clinical definitions of «terminal illness» are notoriously unreliable and ambiguous and risk sweeping up into themselves chronically ill patients who could live a long time if given proper care.

4. «The assisted suicide agenda promotes a narrow and distorted notion of freedom, by creating an expectation that certain people, unlike others, will be served by being helped to choose death» (p. 3).

5. But human life is always good and always sacred. It may be accompanied by serious privations, but of itself, life is always a basic human good. «By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message … that they may be better off dead» (p. 3).

6. But we cannot both defend and promote human dignity and at the same time devalue some lives by saying through law that they are better off dead.

7. In countries where assisted suicide is legal, a dangerous lack of scrutiny and oversight exists. Physicians have moved from assisting in the suicides of patients who request it, to taking the lives «of adults who never asked to die, and newborn childre
n who have no choice in the matter» (p. 4).

8. It is never compassionate to kill another or to assist another to kill himself. Such so-called mercy killing «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» (p. 4).

9. Thus the bitter truth of the right-to-die movement is this: It ends up posing grave risks to those whom it claims to serve, namely, people with serious illness.

10. Rather than investing in more efficient ways of killing infirmed patients, our society should invest in improving palliative care.

The document ends with a call to Catholics and all Americans to reject the lure of the «quick fix» of assisted suicide for those who are suffering. Christ-like love is a better way.

We can learn a lot about ourselves from our enemies. Thus when the bullies at Compassion & Choices announced in response to the USCCB statement that the conference has «launched a new attack on terminal patients’ end–of-life choice,» and that it aims «to impose its religious orthodoxy on all Americans,» and that the bishops have «prompted calls for doctrinal purity,» you may suspect that our shepherds have done something right.

* * *

E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation, and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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