Care for the dying: We must resist efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide Print
Written by Mary Uhler   
Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Often when we speak of respecting all human life, we talk about the full spectrum of life from “womb to tomb.” However, it seems as if more of our energy and attention seem to focus on the beginning of life rather than the end of it.

That’s probably because most people don’t like to think about death and dying. Even though we will all die sometime, we usually prefer to put off any discussions about dying until we’re forced into it.

Physician-assisted suicide

However, we should be concerned about issues involving care of the sick and dying, particularly in light of increased efforts to pass laws legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

Assisted suicide in the United States was brought to public attention in the 1990s with the highly publicized case of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Kevorkian assisted over 40 people in committing suicide in Michigan.

To be clear, euthanasia is still illegal in all 50 states. At this time, physician-assisted suicide is only legal in the states of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.

What is the difference? In euthanasia, a physician or another third party administers lethal medication. In physician-assisted suicide, the patient self-administers lethal medication with the assistance of a physician.

The passage of physician-assisted suicide laws calls into question a physician’s duty to save lives and to “first do no harm.” If a patient has only a few months to live and is given palliative treatment (relieving and preventing suffering), why help them commit suicide? Is it about saving the taxpayers’ money? Is it up to the physicians to decide who lives and who dies? Is committing suicide really “dying with dignity?”

There are so many questions that remain to be answered. Gallup polls show that the nation is split on physician-assisted suicide. Only time will tell whether or not more of these laws will be passed in other states and if physician-assisted suicide will become more widely accepted as people live longer.

Care for those who are suffering

Euthanasia and assisted suicide can appear a reasonable and even compassionate solution to the suffering of individuals and families struggling with illness or the dying process. Yet these are not real solutions — they do not solve human problems, but only take the lives of those most in need of unconditional love.

The United States Catholic bishops have said that terminally ill patients should be given counseling and treatment to deter them from wanting to die. They believe that patients should be given supportive and palliative care to be able to cope with the emotional and physical pain associated with their terminal illness.

“As Christians, we are called to help build a civilization of life and of love, in which seriously ill persons and their families are never abandoned, but are supported with services, friendship, and love,” say the Catholic bishops.

The Catholic bishops encourage us to reach out to those in the parish or broader community who are dying, particularly those who are at risk of dying alone, and keep company with them; provide support to the family, especially with difficult end-of-life decisions; encourage people to volunteer or provide other assistance to local hospice programs; and encourage physicians and other health professionals to provide appropriate palliative care.

In addition, the bishops urge us to foster prayers, at Mass and in homes, for those who are dying and their families to receive the respect and care they need and to be comforted by the peace of Christ. They also suggest developing and supporting programs of respite care for families caring for seriously ill members at home, programs of visitation to nursing homes, and parish nurse programs.

Although it is difficult to deal with chronic diseases, we must continue to find ways to care for people with love and compassion, to treat their suffering, and to offer our support and prayers. Assisted-suicide is not the answer, and we should resist any efforts to legalize it.