Our Catholic faith teaches us that assisted suicide gravely violates the sacred value of all human life, particularly the lives of those who are vulnerable due to age, illness, or disability. It also undermines the medical profession's healing mission.
Pope Francis recently condemned assisted suicide as “false compassion” that was part of a “throwaway culture” that rejects and scorns people who do not fulfill certain criteria of health, beauty and value in society.
However the District of Columbia City Council is currently considering legislation that would allow doctors to legally prescribe a lethal dose of medicine at the request of a patient who has received a terminal illness diagnosis. “Compassionate Choices,” an organization that has received funding from the insurance industry and was formerly known as the Hemlock Society – which advocated for legalization of assisted suicide under any circumstance – has been aggressively promoting this dangerous legislation across the country.
The proposed legislation, which proponents label as “death with dignity,” does not require mental-health screenings, though depression is one of the leading causes of suicide, nor does it require prior notification of family members. Patients who want to commit suicide can simply shop around for a doctor willing to write them a lethal prescription.
The bill does not require a doctor, nurse, or independent witness to be in attendance when the lethal dose is taken, creating serious potential for abuse. For example, a family member or friend with a financial motive could easily steer a patient toward assisted suicide, witness the request, pick up the drugs from the local pharmacy and even administer them to the patient. If there are abuses suspected or reported, there will be no investigation or criminal penalties under this legislation.
Despite claims suggesting otherwise, the legislation reduces choice and autonomy in end-of-life decisions. Many people experience incredible financial and emotional pressures when facing serious illnesses. Those pressures might cause some people to consider assisted suicide as a more affordable and in their minds, a more responsible alternative.
This might also be viewed as a reasonable option by some residents of the District who do not have access to quality health care, counseling services, or other care givers who might be able to provide medical attention or therapy that dramatically extends and improves their quality of life. Indeed, health insurers have more economic incentive to cover these deadly drugs – which cost roughly $300 –than more costly care and treatment.
The late Randy Stroup is an example. In 2008, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but lacked health care insurance to receive chemotherapy. As a result, he applied for assistance from the Oregon Health Plan. It informed him that chemotherapy was too expensive, but it would cover the cost of assisted suicide instead. Stroup lamented at the time, “[How could they] not pay for medication that would help my life, and yet offer to pay to end my life?”
Although the Oregon Health Plan reversed this decision, it has made similar decisions for other terminal patients following guidelines established by the Oregon Legislative Assembly.
In effect, assisted suicide saves money in profit-driven health care systems. As a result, health care options for end-of-life care and treatment will vanish first for vulnerable populations, who like Stroup, have less access to affordable health care. Inevitably, assisted suicide will result in fewer life-sustaining options for all us in this regard. In truth, assisted suicide threatens the life and dignity of everyone in society.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops characterizes this proposed legislation as a “radical departure from the common sense, reason, and compassion that should inform public policy decisions about how best to care for persons who are sick and dying.” It is also a “radical departure” from our nation’s – and the District’s – consistent tradition of protecting innocent human life against intentional killing, a tradition that should not be suspended for any class of persons.
The proposed D.C. assisted suicide bill is also deeply troubling because it violates the city’s own political and social values regarding its most vulnerable populations. Rather than increasing the circle of protection around them, the legislation would subject them to greater vulnerability, inequality, discrimination, and abuse.
The D.C. Catholic Conference strongly urges your opposition to the Death with Dignity Act of 2015. It is dangerous legislation establishing a dangerous precedent for those most in need within our city and country. For more information, please contact the D.C. Catholic Conference at email@example.com or 202-683-1721, or go to the nodcsuicide.org website, which has links to that group’s Facebook and Twitter pages and how to join that broad-based coalition’s efforts in opposing that bill.
(Michael Scott is the director of the D.C. Catholic Conference representing the public policy interests of the Archdiocese of Washington within the District of Columbia.)