Helping to “build a world in which love is stronger than death”: The USCCB Statement Opposing Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Dave Andrusko

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo

I ran a brief announcement when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced it was about to debate and vote on a document on physician-assisted suicide at their Spring General Assembly, June 15-17, in Seattle. However—and this is huge oversight on my part—I never subsequently talked about the document, “To Live Each Day with Dignity: a Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide,” nor posted a link. I am going to correct both today, starting with the link: www.usccb.org/toliveeachday/bishops-statement-physician-assisted-suicide.pdf.

The six-page document represents the first statement on assisted suicide by the full body of the USCCB. Naturally, as a statement by the Catholic Church, it invokes papal teachings and insights gleaned from articles found in the Respect Life Program of the Bishops of the United States in its denunciation of physician-assisted suicide.

Throughout much of the document language and arguments are put forth in a vocabulary that speaks to non-Catholic–or non-believers–alike. This universality makes a powerful document even stronger.

Prior to the discussion, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement in which he wrote, “After years of relative inaction following legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in 1994, the assisted suicide movement has shown a strong resurgence in activity.”

This renewed effort, he said,”has led to the passage of an Oregon-style law in Washington by popular referendum in November 2008, a state supreme court decision essentially declaring that assisted suicide is not against public policy in Montana, and concerted efforts to pass legislation in several New England and Western states. The Church needs to respond in a timely and visible way to this renewed challenge, which will surely be pursued in a number of states in the years to come.”

In the introductory paragraphs, “To Live Each Day with Dignity: a Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide” straightforwardly addresses the very human fear of death.

“Our society can be judged by how we respond to those fears. A caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives.”

And then a very pivotal two-sentence declaration: “When people are tempted to see their own lives as diminished in value or meaning, they most need the love and  assistance of others to assure them of their inherent worth. The healing art of medicine is an important part of this assistance.”

I want everyone to read the document, so let me just make two summary comments. The USCCB does a masterfully job exposing what it properly calls the “illusion of freedom” that the campaign to legal physician-assisted suicide trades on.

“People who request death are vulnerable,” the statement declares. (This would seem to be a commonplace, but it is a truth we have to fight to get even considered.) “They need care and protection. To offer them lethal drugs is a victory not for freedom but for the worst form of neglect. Such abandonment is especially irresponsible when society is increasingly aware of elder abuse and other forms of mistreatment and exploitation of vulnerable persons.”

Second, the document never minimizes or trivializes the difficulties the chronically or terminally ill patient (or their family) faces. But the USCCB document brilliantly exposes how misguided is the idea that “assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering…”

This “false compassion” eliminates the person, results in suffering for those left behind, and “invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions.”

The document ends with soaring call for us all to help.

“When we grow old or sick and we are tempted to lose heart, we should be surrounded by people who ask, ‘How can we help?’ We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with a compassion grounded in respect, offering genuine support in our final days. The choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations.

“We can help build a world in which love is stronger than death.”

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