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Death With Dignity: Coming to a State Near You

With the matter of legalized physician assisted suicide facing the Massachusetts voters this November (and a new law proposed in New Jersey), I thought it would be a good time to remind readers why the CBC opposes physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. To be clear, we support people dying a natural death. Sometimes the zeal for assisted legalized killing comes out of a fear of being ‘hooked up to machines and tubes’ and not being allowed to die.

Please read our full organizational position statement on the matter here. Make no mistake, the drive to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia presents a profound challenge to the integrity of medicine and medical ethics and to the sanctity and equality of human life. As a consequence, the CBC believes that legalizing suicide assistance or so-called mercy killing by doctors (or by anyone else) would corrupt medicine, undermine the viability of suicide prevention efforts by sending a mixed societal message, and threaten the lives and equal societal status of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

I emphasize the “or by anyone else” because of an article I read in the July 12, 2012, New England Journal of Medicine, “Redefining the Physicians’ Role in Assisted Dying,” which was written by pro-assisted dying authors. They rightly acknowledge that the American Medical Association (AMA) and many state-level medical groups oppose the legalization of such practices because of the discomfort medical professionals feel in playing an active role in ending their patients’ lives. The solution the NEJM article puts forward is, let someone else do it! From the article:

Finally, there are objections from the medical community. In a 2003 study of AMA members, 69% objected to physician-assisted suicide, a position officially held by various national and state medical associations. Even with allowances for conscientious objection, some physicians believe it’s inappropriate or wrong for a physician to play an active role in ending a patient’s life. We believe there is a compelling case for legalizing assisted dying, but assisted dying need not be physician-assisted.

The authors then move onto suggest their theory of how this shift will happen:

  • The prescription need not come from a physician
  • Prognosis and treatment options are standard clinical discussions
  • Physicians certify in writing their clinical assessment
  • Patients then go to independent authority to obtain the prescription

And of course, because this practice is so wrong and unethical and goes against the strong moral foundation of the Hippocratic tradition in medicine, the authors (and others who put forward laws to legalize killing) have to prop up their ‘theory’ with an array of ‘safety factors.’ For them, what would be needed to permit independent authorities to dispense lethal doses of drugs would be “the development of a central state or federal mechanism to confirm the authenticity and eligibility of patients’ requests, dispense medication, and monitor demand and use. This process would have to be transparent, with strict oversight.”

As I was reading a selection of letters to the editor in a Massachusetts papers the other day, I was struck by one letter in particular, written by a woman in Washington State, who favors “death with dignity” acts for any state.

Euphemism alert: killing is not death with dignity.

The letter writer states that her mother, Linda Fleming, was the first person to “exercise her right under our [Washington State’s] law to die at a time and place of her choosing by consuming legally prescribed medication.” The letter then takes that pesky turn toward those safety factors in place in Washington to prevent abuse:

  • Patient must be terminally ill
  • Two doctors agreeing the patient will be dead within six months
  • Patient must re-state their wish to die three times over a predetermined period of time
  • Witnesses who attest to the patient’s right state of mind
  • Doctors with rights to require patient receive counseling

She assures us that the slippery slope is not real and these safety measures guard against any notion that legalized assisted suicide leads us down that path. Can you say, the Netherlands? Several years ago, we launched our 6000 souls campaign, arguing that the slippery slope is not only inevitable, it is logical. John Finnis, in his brilliant 2005 testimony to the British House of Lords, illustrated this reality by using my state of California as the test case.

Using the euthanasia data from the Dutch reports and translating that data to a state the size of California, if California were to legalize physician assisted suicide there would be 15,000 cases of physician assisted suicide of which 6,000 would take place without the patients’ knowledge or consent. One Netherlands report stated, “It is the patient who is now responsible, in Holland, for avoiding the termination of his life: if he does not wish to be killed by his doctor, he must state it clearly, orally and in writing, well in advance.”

Inconvenient truths: Death with dignity is not physician assisted suicide. Death with dignity is proper medical care, pain management, and life-affirming hospice. The slippery slope is real. Once you accept the premise that the intentionally taking of life is permissible, ethical, justifiable, it’s not a big leap to make this decision for those who cannot make it for themselves.

This article courtesy of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.


Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Lahl has 25 years of experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, a hospital administrator, and in senior-level nursing management. Her writings have appeared in various publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and the American Journal of Bioethics. As a field expert, she is routinely interviewed on radio and television including ABC, CBC, PBS, and NPR, and called upon to speak alongside lawmakers and members of the scientific community, even being invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels to address egg trafficking. She serves on the North American Editorial Board for Ethics and Medicine and the Board of Reference for Joni Eareckson Tada’s Institute on Disability.
  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Interesting article.

    What is the Catholic position re Life Support Machines? In Ireland it is common practice for these to be used until the relatives gather for prayers around the sick person/deceased and then after the prayers the machine is turned off.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    A second concern I have is about “Do not resuscitate” notices. Any comments?

  • When my Grandfather was in the hospital suffering his final illness, I noticed that he had a “Do Not Resuscitate” bracelet. My Mother said that both he and Grandma had made it clear that they didn’t want extraordinary measures taken to lengthen their lives, when it was time for them to go. Both of them died peacefully in hospice care, and there wasn’t a need to try a resuscitation, and neither was on life support. But I’m sure my family would have honored my Grandparents’ wishes.

    My understanding of what the Church teaches is that extraordinary or burdensome measures need not be taken to extend life artificially, but that ordinary care, including nutrition through a feeding tube if necessary, is required. I think the best thing we can do for our loved ones who are dying is to bring a priest, and ask him to give Viaticum, the Holy Anointing, the Apostolic Pardon, and the prayer of commendation. Three of my Grandparents have died in the last few years, all of them had these, and all died peacefully without the need for machines or other extraordinary measures. Your own prayers matter too!