While legislatures across the country debate the merits of so-called religious freedom bills that some fear could codify discrimination against gays and lesbians, others are quietly considering measures that would legalize, or at least study, physician-assisted suicide.
In response, Catholic leaders are rallying the faithful through e-mails, columns, and Web campaigns to work to defeat the “Death with Dignity” proposals, currently pending in at least 20 states.
While similar bills have been routinely filed for years, proponents of such laws have been energized by the high-profile case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who advocated for expanded access to physician-assisted suicide before ending her own life last November.
- Earlier this month, legislators in Utah decided to table a bill that would have legalized suicide so that it could be studied further. Salt Lake City’s Bishop John Wester wrote in a column that human beings cannot “choose when or who dies,” and that the terminally ill should “have loving care during their final days.”
- Church leaders in New York, Connecticut, and Maryland have launched Web campaigns aimed at organizing coalitions to help defeat bills in those states.
- The Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, said in a statement that legalizing physician-assisted suicide “will lead to the self-disposal of people, under influence, because others regard them as inconvenient or too expensive to maintain.”
- Catholics in New Jersey are being asked by the New Jersey Catholic Conference to email their lawmakers, focusing not so much on the Church’s moral stand against euthanasia, but on the shortfalls of the particular bill, which it says “does not require a patient to consult a psychiatrist, palliative care, or hospice expert before receiving and administering the prescription to commit suicide.”
Opponents of physician-assisted suicide in those states might turn to Massachusetts for advice.
In 2012, Bay State voters narrowly rejected a ballot petition – 51 to 49 percent – that would have legalized suicide there. The Archdiocese of Boston helped to convene a coalition of health care workers and other faith leaders to defeat the measure, raising more than $4 million in the process.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, then head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, said at the time that the victory was due, in part, to engaging unlikely allies — a strategy that he said also could be applied to the Church’s fight against abortion. But, he said, the Church shouldn’t simply denounce their opponents’ beliefs.
“Just as in our struggle against abortion, it is not enough simply to condemn abortion,” he told US bishops at their national meeting in 2012, “but we need to help to take care of the women whose lives are in turmoil because of a pregnancy. In the same way, we need to reach out to those facing difficulties at the end of life.”
The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide, but because of state law, voters are barred from weighing in until 2018.
In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives passed a bill to study end-of-life issues, including euthanasia; it now awaits a vote in the state Senate. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill in 2013.
Meredith Cook, director of the office of public policy for the Diocese of Manchester, pointed out that the Church sometimes finds itself working with legislators and groups who support one measure, and working against them on another. For example, the Church supports the state Legislature’s efforts to expand assistance for palliative care, but it opposes the end-of-life proposal because, she said, of the church’s belief that life must come to a natural end.
“If the Legislature is concerned about addressing the needs of New Hampshire residents with terminal illnesses, prescribing death is not the solution,” she told Crux.
Support for physician-assisted suicide has been on the rise since the 1950s, spiking in 2005 with 75 percent of the population favoring laws in some fashion.
Three states – Oregon, Washington, and Vermont – allow physician-assisted suicide, while courts in two others, New Mexico and Montana, have ruled in favor of residents having expanded rights at the end of life. In fact, 70 percent of Americans support the legalization of euthanasia in some capacity. However, among Americans who attend religious services weekly, just 48 percent favored legalizing suicide.
Last November, a Vatican ethicist weighed in on the assisted suicide debate.
“We don’t judge people, but the gesture in itself is to be condemned,” said Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which is responsible for ethical issues in the Catholic Church.
“Assisted suicide is an absurdity,” Carrasco de Paula told the Italian news agency ANSA. “Dignity is something different than putting an end to your own life.”
“Killing yourself is not a good thing; it’s a bad thing because it says no to life and to all that means in relation to our duty in the world and to those close to us,” the ethicist said.
And just last week, Pope Francis again condemned euthanasia, both what he termed “technical euthanasia” as well as a “hidden euthanasia” of the sick and elderly who are shut off from society.
Some see a connection between libertarian arguments for things like legal abortion and even relaxed gun laws and the high levels of support for legalizing suicide.
“There’s a growing way of thinking in both political parties right now that imagine the individual should be the final arbiter of all moral matters,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.
But the Church’s most powerful argument against assisted suicide laws comes in reminding society that “our lives are never, ever, entirely our own,” he said. “The Catholic Church needs to remind everybody, not just Catholics, that our lives are never completely our own, that what we do has implications and consequences that go far beyond our personal concerns.”
Material from the Religion News Service was used in this report.