SEATTLE — Just weeks after the death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a powerful document that challenged ongoing efforts to present his cause as a “compassionate” solution for the terminally ill.

The bishops voted 191-1 today, the second day of their Spring General Assembly, to approve the language of the document, “To Live Each Day With Dignity.” It argues that lethal actions — characterized as a compassionate response to the pain and despair experienced by some patients —  actually undermine human dignity by eliminating the sufferer rather than providing essential care.

“Catholics should 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,” the document reads. “As disciples of one who is Lord of the living, we need to be messengers of the Gospel of Life. We should join with other concerned Americans, including disability rights advocates, charitable organizations, and members of the healing professions, to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities, and promote life-affirming solutions for their problems and hardships.”

The document is posted on the bishops’ conference website.

Designed as both a moral and practical response to recent campaigns that seek to legalize assisted suicide in Western and New England states, the USCCB document is the first conference-wide effort to address the issue, though bishops from states that permit assisted suicide —  like Oregon and Washington — have issued their own statements over the years. In 1991, the administrative committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a “Statement on Euthanasia,” which sought to counter a nascent movement to legalize euthanasia that “capitalized on people’s confusion, ambivalence, and even fear about the use of modern life-prolonging technologies. Further, borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the “right to choose” must prevail over all other considerations.”

In their new, more extensive statement on this issue, the bishops employ straightforward natural-law arguments to bring their message of hope and concern for patients struggling with end-of-life issues, emphasizing the promise of advances in palliative care, the equal dignity and rights of all persons, including the disabled and the elderly, and the traditional moral obligations of physicians.

“Natural-law arguments are not employed sufficiently in the field of medicine. There is a school of thought that would deny that there are fundamental truths accessible to reason, and this school adopts a utilitarian ethics, which argues that if people are no longer ‘useful,’ it might be best if they die,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, a member of the USCCB committee that developed the statement.

“This document calls for true compassion for those facing serious illnesses, chronic diseases and disabilities, that is, a call to help them live each day with dignity, and not to deny their dignity by assisting them in eliminating their suffering by eliminating themselves,” said Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Competing Press Conferences

The decision to release the document at the 2011 meeting in the state of Washington held special significance. This state legalized physician-assisted suicide in 2008, and official records released in 2010 reported that 36 patients died the previous year after taking lethal medication prescribed by a physician.

Oregon was the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994. More recently, Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, Vermont and Montana have sought to counter legislative and judicial efforts to approve this practice.

Compassion & Choices, the chief national advocacy group for legalizing physician-assisted suicide, organized a press conference to respond to the bishops’ statement, and sought to characterize it as a religious moral statement with limited applicability for non-Catholics.

“We welcome the bishops’ clear statement that opposition to aid in dying is a matter of religious belief,” stated Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, in a message posted on the organization’s website. “While we respect religious instruction to those of the Catholic faith, we find it unacceptable to impose the teachings of one religion on everyone in a pluralistic society. We believe end-of-life care should follow the patient’s values and beliefs and good medical practice, but not be restricted against the patient’s will by Catholic Church doctrine.”

Compassion & Choices is the former Hemlock Society, as the USCCB document notes.

During the USCCB’s press conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities, clarified the difference between Compassion & Choices and the bishops’ stance: “Our ‘choice’ is the choice to help a person in need, to continually bring to them the assistance of the community and the Church. Most people can live with illness when there is support. They may choose something because they don’t want to be a burden, but with solidarity, the choice is for life. That’s the great tradition of our faith ... and of medicine.”

Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, welcomed the USCCB document, noting that advocates for physician-assisted suicide had succeeded in presenting their position as one of many “mainstream” options for the terminally ill.

A representative of Compassion & Choices, said Sister Sharon, “now participates in any public workshop on end-of-life issues. Today, Compassion & Choices supports the hospice movement, though it once viewed the founding principles of that movement as a threat. And though the secular hospice movement once opposed assisted suicide, they are neutral on this issue now — as they were here when the law passed in 2008.”

Sister Sharon suggested that the general public as well as the faithful need a clear moral framework to help them navigate end-of-life issues and guard against the abuse of aging and disabled patients who may be under pressure to commit suicide. The Washington State Catholic Conference recently sought to strengthen reporting requirements for physicians who helped patients commit suicide.

The American ethos of individual autonomy could make the vulnerable especially susceptible to coercion. “Pain used to be the No. 1 reason for patients choosing assisted suicide,” noted Sister Sharon, who has a background in home nursing. “Now, people say they don’t want to be a burden.”

Opponents of legal physician-assisted suicide point to the Netherlands. There,  laws and medical practices that began decades ago with patients voluntarily choosing suicide gradually included a de facto toleration of involuntary euthanasia for disabled infants, the elderly and other vulnerable people. Indeed, the USCCB document noted that Dutch patients diagnosed with mild depression may be offered the option of suicide.

“There is nothing more tragic than a person facing serious illness or disability being offered by their health-care professionals the option of a self-inflicted death. And there is nothing more threatening to the well-being of society than the codification of public policy that enables this to occur,” said Hilliard, who also serves on the board of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

‘Call to Action

However,  Richard Doerflinger, the longtime lobbyist for the conference on life issues, stressed that this new statement was not only an affirmation of Church moral doctrine, but also a “call to action”  designed to reverse a dangerous legislative trend.  He noted that church leaders in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have helped to effectively counter well-funded campaigns to legalized physician-suicide.

Confirmed Wesley Smith, an expert on the issue and a dogged critic of Kevorkian and his effort to shatter ethical taboos against physician-assisted suicide within the medical community, “Assisted-suicide opponents have been especially effective at stopping supposedly ‘sure things.’”

Cardinal DiNardo noted that the USCCB website provides resources to support dioceses, parishes and individuals dealing with end-of-life issues and terminal illness. He announced that the USCCB will collaborate with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability to host a webinar on these issues in the fall.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond filed this report from Seattle.