Proposed 'Death with Dignity' legislation opposes Catholic teaching

Friday, Jan. 08, 2016
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission

Watching a loved one struggle through the end of life is heartbreaking. Seeing a person you care about suffer feels unbearable, and compassionate people want to do nothing more than ease the mental and physical burdens on the person.  The “Death with Dignity” movement exploits these vulnerable moments by insisting that we can bring our suffering loved one dignity by taking his or her life.  As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes, “true compassion leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.” 
Death with Dignity proponents will be supporting a bill in the 2016 Utah legislative session that would allow a person with a vaguely defined terminal or incurable disease to seek a prescription for a lethal dose of medication from a physician for the sole purpose of ending his or her life. Supporters say allowing a person to commit suicide is the compassionate option for people who want to maintain their dignity. The reality is that assisted suicide ignores human dignity by reducing the individual to little more than a collection of physical parts:  Once those parts start to give out, it’s time to throw them away.  Additionally, in this scenario the final decision whether suicide is the “right” treatment option would belong to the doctor, not the patient.
The motivation of assisted suicide proponents is understandable – to ease suffering, whether it is physical or psychological. But destroying the person who is suffering is not the solution. Most of the concerns expressed by those seeking suicide at any stage of life can be addressed with far less drastic measures, such as treatments for depression, better quality palliative care, and building stronger support systems for the person who is suffering and for loved ones trying to provide comfort and care. 
In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, few who seek that option due so because of pain; rather, they fear loss of autonomy and the inability to do those things they used to do easily. For those who feel their life lacks dignity because their illness makes them dependent on others, we must serve as constant reminders that dignity comes from the simple of act of being created in the image and likeness of God. The homeless man sleeping on the street, the woman struggling to overcome a drug addiction and the disabled person seeking accommodation have the same dignity as the wealthy business person, the much-loved parent, or the highly respected professional.  None of these individuals has greater dignity than the other, regardless of economics, social standing, or ability to do for oneself. 
Proponents of assisted suicide also fail to recognize that all life is sacred. While the “death with dignity” movement has managed to market assisted suicide by recasting it as a compassionate response to suffering, it is still the intentional taking of a human life.  Supporters of the law  say its different because it allows a person to choose the time, place and manner of death. This is what a suicidal person does, as well. Most of us would do all that we could to convince a suicidal person that their life does have meaning; we should do no less for the person who is suffering from a debilitating disease.
Assisted suicide ultimately sends the opposite message, which is that killing oneself actually is a solution to a problem.  For most individuals who have sought assisted suicide in Oregon, the problem that they seek to address through death is typically something that can be dealt with through other, non-lethal means, such as providing access to effective end-of-life care  and better health insurance options so that people do not feel like a financial burden on their families.
In Catholic teaching, humans are not a means to an end. Even when our bodies are no longer able to provide comfort and ease, we still have value. During the 2016 Utah legislative session, Catholic voices need to be heard reminding our legislators that every life is sacred and dignified and suicide is never the answer to a problem.
For information about the assisted suicide bill in Utah and Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues, visit http://www.dioslc.org/ministries/governmentliaison. 

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