'Death With Dignity' is ill-conceived legislation

Friday, Mar. 06, 2015
'Death With Dignity' is ill-conceived legislation + Enlarge
By The Most Rev. John C. Wester
Bishop of Salt Lake City

The whole of life is a gift. In all of its beautiful, messy, sometimes seemingly insufferable, sometimes awe-inspiring moments, life is a series of endless opportunities to experience God’s immense love for us. Any or all of these moments of grace are lost if we choose to abort life – either our own or someone else’s – before it is time, including through such proposals as the ill-named Death With Dignity Act being considered by the Utah Legislature. 
Each moment of our lives is pregnant with grace. As we experience the unique challenges of terminal illness and death, grace may come in the form of reconnecting with old friends, restoring relationships, forgiving, being forgiven, or more fully exploring the depths of God’s love. HB 391 Utah Death With Dignity Act would encourage anyone over the age of 18 to sever these potential relationships with God and others as a form of pain management. 
Organizations that promote assisted suicide paint a picture of pain as something to be avoided at all costs. They are buoyed by pharmaceutical companies and others that spend billions on advertising to tell us pain is the enemy. In truth, pain is a God-given gift that tells us to pay attention to our bodies and our health; it encourages us to seek medical attention. Pain is also part of our human journey, one that Jesus shared. Imagine if, rather than helping Christ carry the Cross, Simon told him he could end his misery then and there. Without the Way of the Cross and the Crucifixion, there would be no redemption for any of us. 
Thankfully, Jesus did carry the Cross and die upon it, making redemption a possibility for all of us. Legalizing suicide as a matter of state law not only discourages people who are suffering from experiencing God’s grace, it encourages all of us to turn our backs on the marginalized, abandon the suffering, and devalue human life.
Such has been the result of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, upon which the Utah bill is modeled. Studies of Oregon’s law show that since its adoption in 1997 the majority of people seeking assisted suicide are not trying to relieve excruciating pain. Rather, they seek death because they are depressed, lack close family to provide emotional support, or don’t want to be a burden on others. In short, they are lonely and vulnerable.  Rather than provide treatment or emotional support, assisted suicide laws offer a permanent solution for these remediable problems. 
Even for those who do not seek suicide, Oregon’s law has negatively impacted the quality of their final days. In a 2002 nationwide study by the Last Acts Coalition that graded states on care, Oregon received a “D” for its hospice care, a “C” on the percentage of hospitals reporting a pain management program, an “E” (an “F” in school parlance) for the percentage of hospitals reporting a palliative care program, a “C” on the percentage of nursing home residents with persistent pain, and a “C” on the strength of the state’s pain policies and percentage of primary care physicians who are certified in palliative medicine. The study also noted that Oregon was not among the 30 states with statewide coalitions or partnerships to improve care of the dying.
Unfortunately, the rise of euthanasia laws is not a 21st-century phenomenon; St. John Paul II addressed the issue in 1995’s Evangelium Vitae: “Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future.  ... But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret  ... crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.” 
The actual right we have is not to choose when or who dies, it is to live a life of dignity. “Death with dignity” is not achieved by ending one’s life, but by ensuring that the dying have loving care during their final days and are not artificially deprived of the experience of God’s grace before he calls them to himself.  

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