As regular readers will remember, in recent weeks I have been sharing a series of reflections on the issue of physician assisted suicide. This week, I want to share with you an opinion piece by Scot Landry, our Secretary for Catholic Media that appeared in this week’s edition of The Pilot. I believe it offers some excellent points on how to discuss this issue with family and friends.
Don’t be fooled by proponents’ claims on Question 2
By Scot Landry
“Choice. Control. Dignity.” Those appealing words headline the main information page for the proponents of Question 2, which would legalize assisted suicide in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts if passed on Nov. 6. The names of the two national organizations who have targeted Massachusetts for this legislation are also appealing — “Compassion and Choices” and “Death with Dignity.”
Who generally wouldn’t want to support choice, control, compassion, and death with dignity? Of course, that is why they have chosen to use these words and names (“Compassion and Choices” used to be known as the “Hemlock Society”). Please avoid being misled. With your help, other Massachusetts voters can hear how Question 2 would bring fewer choices, less control and compassion, and more undignified deaths.
Let us examine some proponents’ claims and respond.
(1) Proponents state on their website that “a Yes vote on Question 2 will allow terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to request a prescription for life-ending medication from their doctor. The law has 16 different safeguards, including approvals from two doctors and waiting periods. Doctor participation is voluntary and no doctor would ever be forced to prescribe against their will.”
Responding to these claims: Doctors, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, state that terminal diagnoses of six months or less are often wrong and that people shouldn’t make life-and-death decisions based on someone’s best guess. In Oregon, most of the doctors who write assisted suicide prescriptions are not the patient’s family physician; rather it is often a doctor affiliated with “Compassion and Choices,” who might not know the patient well. Despite some safeguards, there are certainly not enough in Question 2 to protect the terminally ill person. There is no safeguard that requires doctors to refer patients to a psychiatrist or palliative care specialist before issuing the prescription. In fact, Question 2 allows any doctor — even specialists like podiatrists or dermatologists with little experience in end of life care — to determine if the patient is of sound mind. There is no safeguard that requires family members to be notified. There is no safeguard prohibiting all the witnesses to the request for lethal drugs to not be heirs to the patient’s estate. There is no safeguard that prevents falsification of the death certificate and requires that it list that the patient died from assisted suicide. There is no safeguard to require the dispensing of the medication to take place in a hospital instead of a local pharmacy. There is no safeguard that tracks the lethal medication once it leaves the pharmacy. Question 2 also fails to give Massachusetts any resources or even the authority to investigate violations or provide oversight. Additionally, there is now an effort in Oregon to require doctors to make mandatory referrals if they choose not to participate in assisted suicide. There is also no explicit conscience protection for pharmacists in Question 2 who do not want to dispense medication that allows someone to end his or her life.
(2) Proponents claim on their website that “Patients dying of late stage cancer, and other terminal illnesses, can face weeks or months of extreme pain and suffering before death. Question 2 allows these patients to face death on their own terms.” “This is a decision for terminally ill patients alone, not politicians, government, religious leaders, or anyone else. We all deserve the right to make this decision for ourselves if we are faced with the final stages of a terminal illness. This is the most personal of decisions and it should not be denied to a terminally ill patient who might find comfort in it.”
Responding to these claims: While fear of suffering is often advanced as a reason to favor assisted suicide, statistics from Oregon show that few patients state that “unbearable physical suffering” is the reason for their request for an assisted suicide prescription. Rather, the request is more often motivated by a desire to control the timing and manner of death and by a fear of future circumstances. Palliative care and hospice experts indicate that advances in pain management can effectively control the physical pain of terminal illnesses. Proponents’ arguments also are based on a radical autonomy that does not weigh the impact that a person’s death, especially a death by suicide, has on family, friends and community. Each of our own experiences of dealing with the loss of loved ones clearly shows the interconnectedness of our lives. When proponents list all the groups they don’t want involved in a terminally ill patient’s decision, they specifically omit a person’s family physician, family members or even one’s spouse; yet, there is no requirement that any of those individuals are notified. Imagine the impact on a family member or a spouse who learns that a loved one was able to get this prescription without their knowledge or without an opportunity to express their love or to intervene.
(3) Proponents claim on their website that “Question 2 expands end-of-life care options for terminally ill patients.” “Question 2 respects and upholds the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.” “Providing terminally ill patients the option to end one’s life in a humane and dignified manner encourages honest conversations between patients and doctors about end-of-life care.”
Responding to these claims: These arguments mislead voters to think that the “doctor” in the “doctor-patient relationship” is the patient’s longstanding family physician. In Oregon, the evidence is that most often a doctor affiliated with “Compassion and Choices,” who barely knows the patient or his history, is involved in assisted suicide — not the family physician. The Massachusetts Medical Society has taken a clear position that doctors should not participate in assisted suicide. “Assisted suicide is not necessary to improve the quality of life at the end of life. Current law gives every patient the right to refuse lifesaving treatment, and to have adequate pain relief, including hospice and palliative sedation.” Quoting Dr. Lynda Young, past president of the MMS, it says, “Allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. Patients must continue to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy, and good communication.”
(4) Proponents claim this is about “Choice” and “Control.”
Response: Question 2 wants the state to sanction a choice that would have negative consequences for society and for individuals. Our society would never support an individual’s choice to take racist actions or to drive at whatever speed he or she desires. Rather, we would collectively respond that “as a society, we do not approve of that behavior” or “that law would harm those that speed and the rest of us who share the roads.” Our society has always worked to prevent suicides and acknowledged the interconnectedness of people, particularly connections among family members.
“Choice” in Question 2 is an illusion. Medical professionals recognize that people who take their own lives are often not “free” because they commonly suffer from a mental illness, such as clinical depression. Disability-rights advocates fear that Question 2 would lead to societal and personal pressure for someone at the end of life (or someone with diminished utility) to consider assisted suicide. They are suspicious that this “freedom” and “choice” for assisted suicide may be unduly influenced by the biases and wishes of others, as it has been in the Netherlands. They are concerned that the “control” over this decision will not always be the patient’s, and because of the lack of safeguards, will lead to situations where assisted suicide will be “out of control.”
(5) Proponents claim this is about “Compassion.”
Response: Compassion means to “suffer with” and to accompany someone through a difficult period of life. Compassion does not put a lethal weapon, in this case a prescription of 100 capsules of Seconal, into the hands of a person to help take his or her life. Compassionate physicians want to end the patient’s suffering (through palliative care), not the patient’s life. There is also the fear that taking life in the name of compassion invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions, as it has in the Netherlands.
(6) Proponents claim this is about “Death with Dignity”
Response: Dignity is much more than the “right” to receive an assisted suicide prescription at the end of life. Is it a “death with dignity” to ingest 100 capsules of Seconal all at once, without your doctor present and with the help of anti-nausea and mouth-numbing medication to overcome the bitter taste of the lethal drugs? Is it a “death with dignity” when the family, who might provide loving support at the end of life, isn’t required to be notified? Is suicide, whether assisted or not, ever a “death with dignity?” As Cardinal Seán and others have said, “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.”
Please don’t be fooled by proponents’ claims on Question 2. Their claims are misleading and rely on euphemisms. If assisted suicide becomes legal in our Commonwealth, it could lead to a society with fewer choices, less compassion, less control and more undignified deaths. Please join me to stop assisted suicide by voting “No on Question 2” this Election Day.
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Also, I have prepared a special homily that will be played at all the parishes of the archdiocese this weekend. I want to share it with you here, also:
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I have spent much of this past week in Rome to attend the canonization of seven new saints. It was very fitting that the Holy Father chose Mission Sunday as the date for the canonization of these new saints who epitomized the church’s mission to evangelize in various aspects.
Two of the new saints are Americans. Sister Marian Cope, though she was born in Germany, came to New York when she was one-year-old.
She joined the Franciscan Sisters there and then went to work for many years in the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii. She worked alongside St. Damien of Molikai and, in fact, cared for him when he was dying.
The other American saint is, of course, St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
There was great enthusiasm from many quarters for her canonization as the first Native American saint.
Because she spent part of her life in New York and part of her life in Canada, there were contingents from both the U.S. and Canada in Rome.
There were also German, French, Italian, Spanish and Filipino saints canonized. So, there were pilgrims there from all over the world accompanying their bishops from those countries to be a part of the very joyful celebration that took place in the plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Holy Father gave a very beautiful homily touching on the lives the new saints and the ceremony concluded with the Angelus.
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The following day, there were two Masses of thanksgiving. One was celebrated by the Canadian bishops in French at the Basilica of St. John Lateran and the other was at St. Peter’s Basilica.
In St. Peter’s, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany preached the homily and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was the principal celebrant.
Archbishop Chaput’s mother was a Pottawatomie Indian and he is very proud of his Native American heritage. So, it was very fitting that he would be invited to preside at that Mass.
After the Mass, I was happy to greet a number of people at the reception at the North American College for the 700 pilgrims who were there from the states.
Msgr. Lance is one of the people most responsible for promoting the cause of sainthood of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, so it was wonderful that he could be present at the canonization to see the fruits of all of his labor.
He was a missionary in Paraguay and later became director of the Black and Indian Mission Office. When I was Bishop in the Virgin Islands we were very blessed to have his help with many programs. His service to the Church has been invaluable.
I also spent time with the pilgrims from Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Plymouth (which I suppose should now be called St. Kateri Parish!)
The parish was established by Cardinal Medeiros in the 80’s and I understand it was one of the first parishes in the world named for St. Kateri. I know the people there have always been very proud to have St. Kateri as their patroness.
On Sunday afternoon, Rome time, we actually called the parish as Bishop John Dooher was beginning a 10 a.m. Mass of thanksgiving at the parish. I was able to greet all the people from Rome by phone over the church’s loudspeaker system. I spoke to them about the canonization of their patroness and assured them that while we were with their fellow parishioners in Rome we were praying for all the people back home, as well.
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While in Rome, I also had a chance to catch up with a number of people.
For example, I ran into Msgr. Connie McRae — almost literally.
After his retirement, he accepted the position of spiritual director at the North American College, particularly at the Casa Santa Maria.
I was walking on the street and he was passing on his bicycle. (He was going in the opposite direction, otherwise I am sure he would have graciously offered to give me a ride.) I emailed this picture to Father O’Leary at the Cathedral and said “I want to be like Msgr. McRae when I grow up!”
This young man is Deacon Francisco Aguirre, whose family is from Nicaragua. His grandparents are very dear friends of mine and I have known him since he was just little child. The sister is also the daughter of other friends of mine and she is making her final profession this year. Her name is Sister Kateri, and so her community sent her to be in Rome for the canonization. Her family, the Ham family, are very close friends. It was such a thrill to see both of them there, having known both of them since they were children and now seeing one about to be ordained a priest and the other about to make her final profession as a Franciscan Sister.
On Saturday I had dinner with Ricky Serino, a Malden Catholic graduate who is studying at St Anselm’s College and abroad in Europe for semester.
Then, on Sunday, I had dinner with a number of Boston priests and seminarians who are in Rome. Mgsr. Moroney, the rector of St. John’s Seminary, is there giving some talks at the Institute for Ongoing Formation of Priests at the North American college.
We also met for lunch with Carl Anderson and his wife, Dorian. Carl is participating in the Synod on the New Evangelization and I was very happy to be able to spend some time with them.
The view from the restaurant where we were was just magnificent. From the terrace you could see the Pantheon and the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
I was also happy to be in Rome for the feast day of Blessed Pope John Paul II and have an opportunity to pray at his tomb. On Tuesday, we had Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, near St. Peter’s tomb. We were joined at that Mass by Father Michael Nolan and Father Ed Arsenault.
Blessed John Paul II and Sts. Kateri and Marianne, Pray for us!
Until next week,