Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
In October 1997, despite objections from pro-life Christians and others, the state of Oregon enacted an assisted suicide law. The Death with Dignity Act allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose. In the ensuing years, nearly a thousand people have ended their lives by suicide, with the number of self-induced deaths increasing each year. According to the state's annual “Death with Dignity” report, there were 1,545 lethal prescriptions distributed between 1997 and 2015; during that time, 991 Oregon patients voluntarily ended their lives by ingesting physician-prescribed medications.
While the intended goal of the assisted suicide law was to eradicate suffering, in practice the Act seems to do exactly what its critics had warned: In some cases, the “right” to commit suicide has quickly become a “duty” to die.
Dexter, Oregon resident Randy Stroup, for example, was only 53 years old when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had no health insurance, so he filed a claim with the State Health Plan. He received a response from LIPA, the Lane Individual Practice Association, which administers the Oregon Health Plan in Lane County. Sorry, they said—since his cancer was advanced, LIPA could not authorize the expensive treatment necessary to prolong Stroup's life. They would, however, pay for his assisted suicide.
Barbara Wagner, also from Oregon, also applied for state medical care in the treatment of her cancer. The Oregon Health Plan responded, telling her, “Treatment of advanced cancer that is meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not a covered benefit of the Oregon Health Plan.” Instead, they told her, they would be happy to pay for “comfort care” or “physician aid in dying.”
Both Stroup and Wagner were shocked and offended by the state's matter-of-fact offer to end their lives. Stroup said, “It dropped my chin to the floor! How could they not pay for medication that would help my life, and yet offer to pay to end my life?”
And Wagner voiced her outrage to a local newspaper: “To say to someone, we’ll pay for you to die, but not pay for you to live,” she said, “it’s cruel. Who do they think they are?”
But despite complaints from patients, right-to-life activists and people of faith, acceptance of suicide continues to make inroads in American politics. Five states (California, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana) have legalized assisted suicide. In October the New Jersey Assembly passed the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which now must clear the state Senate. The Colorado End of Life Options Act (Proposition 106) will be on the November ballot in Colorado.
And on November 1, the Washington D.C. City Council will consider B21-38, a proposal to legalize assisted suicide. In our nation's capital, the anti-euthanasia advocacy group No DC Suicide argues that the proposed bill is discriminatory because it would disproportionately target poor and vulnerable persons including senior citizens and those with disabilities and mental health challenges, often denying them appropriate health care, legal safeguards and choices on how they live their lives.
J.J. Hanson, executive director of the Patients’ Rights Action Fund, is among leaders who are pressing the D.C. City Council to reject the proposed assisted suicide bill. Hanson, a Marine combat veteran, has been diagnosed with Grade 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an invasive brain tumor. Hanson fears that legislation such as the D.C. Suicide bill are dangerous for terminally ill patients. Hanson explained that his concern is not so much for himself—he fights his tumor aggressively and tries to get the best care possible. For many other patients, however, B21-38 is a signal to stop fighting and to accept assisted suicide, rather than taking the alternative route of exploring treatment options.
In Hanson's case, he was given a life expectancy of only four months. Two and a half years later, after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, he reports no sign of tumor growth. He has reduced the dosage of his seizure medication, he exercises daily, and his memory has improved. But at one point, about five months after his diagnosis, Hanson experienced what he calls “a weak point.” Forced to give up his independence and move 1,000 miles so that his family could help with his care, suffering seizures and memory loss, unable to get out of bed for four weeks, he became depressed. Looking back at that time, he realizes that he would have been vulnerable to the pressure to relieve his pain by committing suicide.
Hanson notes that often, people look at the assisted suicide issue in a positive light. “Why should I object,” they ask, “if someone else chooses that? Who am I to tell them no?” The issue is packaged in positive, colorful messages like “Compassionate choices” and “Aid in dying.” But people don't understand what it is that they're being asked to support. The proposed D.C. Bill is not about “personal autonomy” or “personal choice”; rather, it extinguishes hope. It opens the door to a system which takes away the choice of many individuals who would choose to fight their disease, rather than succumb to the pressure to end their lives.
The U.S. Bishops, in their statement on physician-assisted suicide “To Live Each Day With Dignity,” call on Catholics to be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives. “When we grow old or sick,” they say,
“...and we are tempted to lose heart, we should be surrounded by people who ask “How can we help?” 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. We can help build a world in which love is stronger than death.”