Wednesday, July 4, 2012

PAS—Coming Soon to a State Near You

For the past two months I had the privilege of working with Boston’s archdiocesan Pro-Life Office and the Office of Faith Formation and Evangelization on a challenging project. This November, voters in Massachusetts will be asked to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS), more grimly called “doctor-prescribed suicide,” which if passed, would make the Commonwealth the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to do so.

Need I say that the Massachusetts Episcopal (Bishops) Conference takes a dim view of the idea? (See The Church in Boston has officially concluded its workshop campaign and plans to inaugurate a media blitz this fall. I helped promote the informational workshops on the legal and medical aspects of the issue in several parishes and led a reflection session as a follow-up, using Scripture, the movie Wit, and group discussion to highlight the “human side” of the issue: its spiritual, psychological, and social aspects.

We had time for workshops in only twelve strategic locations. Attendance was minimal. We knew it would be, considering the topic and the current lack of media attention on the referendum. About 300 people attended the informational workshops and 89, the reflection sessions, half of whom had not attended the workshops. The upside is that the archdiocese is keeping in touch with those who offered their services to assist in defeating the Act at the polls. In addition, many of those at the movie sessions took the booklet I had prepared for home use, so that they could replicate the experience for families and friends. Stories about people, as in Scripture or on the screen, can be great indicators of what is truly human. Some suggestions in the booklet use simplified Scripture passages and kids’ movies to educate young people in reverence for life, human autonomy, compassion and dignity, and interpersonal dynamics surrounding end-of-life issues. Only 17% of Catholics in the Boston archdiocese attend Mass regularly, so churches are not the place where most people, young or old, will get their information and values formation.*

No doubt the lack of publicity will change somewhat come the fall, but even then, it will be overshadowed by the hype around the presidential election and local elections. This is a “blue” state, and a Democrat, fairly popular with Bay State voters, sits in the White House. Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) wagered on all that when it targeted Massachusetts as the next state to include its Death With Dignity Act on the ballot. With this state as an international leader in health care, a win in Massachusetts would set the stage for legalized suicide in one state after another. Last December, the Massachusetts Medical Association voted 178 to 56 against what it views as a “bad bill,” because of its lack of safeguards for the terminally ill and its disregard for palliative care. One doctor I spoke with said that although it was not part of the debate, the prospect of malpractice suits in the aftermath of misdiagnoses and wrong prognoses may well have been in the back of some doctors’ minds as they voted. Not surprisingly, disability rights activists are alarmed. In addition, various churches and both Christian and non-Christian organizations have stood up to be counted and some are planning their own educational events, including one that I know of that intends to use the movie as well. It's definitely not just a Catholic issue.

A useful online site is It includes Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s video and lists a number of digital and print media resources.
At Holy Family Parish in Duxbury
I especially like a clear, no-frills article I read in the Boston Pilot in January and which is available online: “Purpose, Palliative Care, and Respect for Human Life,” by Adam MacLeod. If you’re like most people and you’re touched by a good story, you’ll appreciate the article posted in March on the death of Sr. Annette Margaret Boccabello, one of our younger sisters. The resources that helped her to make her decisions regarding her care and treatment might also help you or someone you know.

If you like something a little more intricate, check out this fascinating report sent by the Catholic Health Association to the Supreme Court in 1997—Physician-Assisted Suicide: CHA Amicus Brief. A Pauline Cooperator who works for a law firm here in Boston sent me the link to the ten-page report, that includes a letter by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago written the week before he died. It seems that the controversial Ninth Circuit Court had raised a question as to whether a person has a right, not “to be assisted in ‘killing oneself intentionally,’ but whether there is a liberty interest in ‘determining the time and manner of’ or ‘hastening one’s death.’”

That’s sobering. Among other issues, it erases the distinction, for instance, between deliberately causing one’s death (suicide) and withholding or withdrawing disproportionate means to sustain life, or managing pain with medication, even if as a side-effect, it hastens death.

It also sets society on what is being called “the slippery slope.” The CHA observes that if law is grounded in choice rather than in moral right, “there is no coherent way to limit a purported right to ‘assisted suicide’ to terminally ill people or to competent people who can communicate,” since not even incompetent people “lose their constitutional freedoms simply due to their incompetence.” The non-communicative or incompetent person’s health care proxy would be authorized to make that decision. Euthanasia, or physician-administered poison would be the next step, since as the Court declared, it considers it “less important who administers the medication than who determines whether the terminally ill person's life shall end.” The CHA report’s argument concludes, “At this point, assisted suicide is no longer a clinical event occurring in a health care setting; it is nothing more than state-sanctioned killing by private agreement.”

The voice of the people is not, of itself, the voice of God. Personal choice or public consensus as a basis for law are as arbitrary as the “divine right of kings,” when exercised apart either from natural law, which rests on the purpose for which things exist, or divine positive law, such as the Ten Commandments. For instance, my lungs are made for inhaling oxygen that my blood needs to sustain life throughout my body. If I go into the garage, close the door, turn on the car, and begin to breathe carbon monoxide instead, I’m using my lungs for something other than what they were intended for. My “choice,” regardless of how it’s condoned by the public, is immoral according to natural law. Notice that the basis for this morality, or natural law, has nothing to do with religion; it’s common to all human beings.

This may seem all very theoretical, but it provides the foundation of what we’re witnessing: 
•    When a terminally ill person can request a lethal prescription and have that written request witnessed by an heir and a total stranger;
•    when neither the psychologist administering the psychological test nor the prescribing physician need to know the person;
•    and when death certificates are falsified to reflect the underlying disease and not suicide as the cause of death (life insurance policy concerns?),
we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about how superficial our moral reasoning has become and not turn our eyes from its consequences. What can our response be?

My two-month interaction with a broad range of Catholic attitudes toward life and dignity was an education for me as much as it was for the people I served. It was a privilege to reach out among them with the Pauline mission, using media in connection with God’s Word, to address an issue that I’ve made my own since my sister and I cared for our parents. We faced many of the same questions and agonies as those I talked with. People were deeply touched by the session. One parish secretary sent us a note that she was thankful for the “human face” the media experience put on the issue.

What kind of world do we want to leave to the next generation? One, I would think, which offers creative alternatives to suicide in facing life’s challenges, one in which we freely take charge of our own lives within an increasingly dizzying array of technological choices. Next week, we’ll look at the movie Wit, see how, practically speaking we can live and die with real dignity, and “grow” our imagination to envision courses of action worthy of our humanness in its best sense, alternatives to the cheapest way out, economically and humanly. May we discover hope.

*Interested in a digital copy of the family/friend booklet, “To Life!” and the guide for our conversation on Wit? E-mail me your request at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you sister Margaret. The issues you address are VERY important. Your outreach is greatly appreciated, as you speak with clarity, informed rason, and personal experince.
    Blessings, Carol Anne


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