Sunday, May 20, 2007

Assisted Suicide: A "False Choice" For Those with Terminal Illness

Reprinted with Permission by Valley Catholic
Update: On June 7, 2007, AB 374 was "shelved" due to insufficient votes. See post: "Physician-Assisted Suicide 'Shelved' in California Assembly."

By Linda Batton

Wending its way through the State Legislature is AB 374, known as The Compassionate Choices Act, which would make it legal for a physician to prescribe lethal drugs to a person diagnosed with a terminal illness, who had six months or less to live.

AB 374, sponsored by Compassion in Choices, is similar to the “Death with Dignity” law in Oregon. The bill is virtually identical to AB 654/AB 651, the legislation that failed in the 2005-2006 legislative session.

This time, however, the proponents have recruited the Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nuñez as a co-author. At their press conference, the authors declared that “this time it would pass” and that what they wanted to pass was not “suicide” but “aid in dying” and “compassionate choice.”

These continued efforts to legalize assisted suicide capitalize on our deepest fears of loss of control and autonomy. Borrowing language from the abortion debate, “choice” is the ultimate right that must prevail over all others.

Using “compassionate” in the title of the bill infers that opponents lack this virtue. The major argument, proponents of this bill offer revolves around personal liberty, choice, and civil rights.

As Catholics, we oppose euthanasia or assisted suicide because we believe that human life is a gift from God, that we are stewards, not owners, of that life and that life is sacred from conception to natural death.

This informs and underlies our policy perspectives. Assisted suicide is opposed by the California Catholic Conference as well as the American Medical Association, the California Medical Association, the California Hospice and Palliative Care Association, the California Disability Alliance, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens, La Raza Roundtable of Santa Clara County and the Sacramento NAACP, as well many other organizations representing the poor, uninsured, and people with disabilities.

In our advocacy with California legislators, the following arguments have been offered by the California Catholic Conference and the Californians Against Assisted Suicide (CAAS):

1. California law already gives every patient the right to refuse extraordinary end-of-life treatment. AB 374 isn’t about improving care for the terminally or chronically ill; it is about legalizing assisted suicide.

2. AB 374 is strongly opposed by both the American Medical Association and the California Medical Association as well as hospice workers. Legalizing suicide could seriously damage the relationship between patients and healthcare workers.

3. It is especially remarkable that the Legislature is considering AB 374 at a time when millions of low-income Californians and their families don’t have access to basic health care.

4. AB 374 poses a real danger to people with new disabilities or chronic diseases as research overwhelmingly shows that people with new disabilities will often initially experience despondency and even suicidal feelings, but later will adapt and enjoy life.

5. AB 374 would provide a powerful incentive for health insurance providers, disaffected family members or potential heirs to promote assisted suicide over long-term expensive care.

6. People often live many years after a “terminal” diagnosis, yet initial thoughts of depression and temporary thoughts of suicide are common. Physicians who specialize in end-of-life care know that these thoughts are transitory and that patients respond to support from health care providers, family, and hospice workers.

7. Studies confirm the most of those killed under Oregon’s assisted suicide law consented to the lethal procedure for reasons of “autonomy” or fear of “loss of dignity” or abandonment rather than for intractable pain.

Any legalization of assisted suicide is bad public policy. The real answer lies instead in working to provide access to healthcare to the millions of Californians who go without it. The real answer to providing a dignified death is to insure that those who are suffering are offered hospice care and palliative medications to ease their suffering.

Legalization of AB 374 offers a false “choice” because if those who are dying are offered comfort and compassion, they will not seek death, they will not be tempted to take themselves out of the equation, but will live their last days well.

In the final analysis, policy decisions are always personal. In the last months of my father’s life, he received wonderful and compassionate hospice care. His suffering was minimized by excellent medical care and the entire family was supported through the process. Although initially, depressed and anxious about the effect of his illness on his family, he was able, through such care to live the last months of his life surrounded by those he cared about and in the home that he loved. I am convinced that he would have wanted this same care to be available to all.

For more information including parish material, see or See also Statement on Euthanasia, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1991.