JUNCTION CITY, Ore. — The man who founded the Hemlock Society 30 years ago and calls assisted suicide “the ultimate civil right” thinks that the time is finally ripe for it to become the law of the land.

Derek Humphry sees evidence for his optimism in state legislatures that are considering bills that would legalize euthanasia — California last year, Arizona and Vermont this year, and Washington state next year; six others since 1997.

“The pendulum is beginning to swing our way,” said Humphry, author of the 1991 best-selling book The Final Exit. “The feeling in the right-to-die movement is that people are more acceptable of the idea now and it might be time to start again.”

Humphry told the Register that the only assisted suicide law in the United States, a 1994 Oregon statute, has been a huge success.

Dr. John Shea, a retired radiologist and board member of the Catholic Bioethics Institute of Canada, would dispute Humphry’s assessment of success, but the two opposing advocates do agree on one major cause of the apparently renewed interest in assisted suicide.

“There’s a demographic imbalance in the States, and the old are being kept alive by good medicine but they’re not productive. Doctors and next-of-kin are beginning to ask themselves, is this treatment futile in the financial sense? There’s pressure on doctors to create a dividing line between those worth saving and those not,” Shea said.

Humphry and Shea said that the enormous population of baby boomers now aging is starting to think about death and dying, for their parents’ generation and for themselves. This plethora of aging people, already living in what Shea calls a declining culture, is promoting subtle forms of assisted suicide in heretofore respected institutions — some of them Catholic. One such subtlety is the re-education of the public about what is called palliative care.

Palliative care is the treatment of pain and other symptoms of a disease, especially in the terminally ill. It is the raison d’etre of hospice organizations and is designed to comfort, not cure. Shea thinks that palliative care has been suborned by sophisticated methods of ending life that many Catholics don’t recognize. In an article in the July/August 2004 issue of Catholic Insight called “Killing Me Softly” he wrote: “In the past few years, some ethicists and physicians have proposed Terminal Sedation as a legal alternative to assisted suicide. For many physicians, an essential component of TS is also the withdrawal of all treatment, including food and water, so that death occurs as soon as possible.” Terminal Sedation, also called Comfort Care, has increased since he wrote the article, Shea told the Register.

Elizabeth Wickham, director of LifeTree, a national pro-life organization, couldn’t agree more.

“We’ve got elephants in the living room and no one’s noticing,” Wickham said. “Palliative care has been hijacked.”

She said that these low-profile attempts at euthanasia are more sinister than the out-front assisted suicide bills proposed in statehouses.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is the education director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia and an ethicist. He holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and agrees “there is definitely a need for further education of the clergy.” He said also that assisted suicide seems to be gaining a deeper foothold in the nation and that not even respected institutions are immune from the siren call of easy death.

“Some hospice groups require that you agree before treatment that no tubes be put in you. That’s not a reasonable request,” Father Pacholczyk said. “Sometimes these (end-of-life issues) can be very complex, but everybody has a responsibility to understand.”

Priests are aware of that responsibility, he said, and are very interested in the topic of assisted suicide and its ramifications for the people they serve. Oftentimes, parish priests are on the front line when questions about death and dying arise. The National Catholic Bioethics Center offers one-day workshops on Catholic teaching on physician-assisted suicide. In fact, Father Pacholczyk spends much of his time traveling the country and presenting these workshops to diocesan groups and medical professionals.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has outlined Church teaching on assisted suicide in its Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services: “We have a duty to preserve our life, and to use it for the glory of God; but the duty to preserve life is not absolute, for we may reject life-prolonging procedures that are insufficiently beneficial or excessively burdensome. Suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options.”

Morally acceptable or not, the assisted suicide movement is far from dead.     

Paul Barra is based in

Reidville, South Carolina.