BOSTON — Last April, Father Roger Landry, a priest from the Fall River, Mass., Diocese, returned to his alma mater, Harvard University, to educate students about a ballot measure — "Prescribing Medication to End Life" — which Massachusetts voters will decide this November.
The measure would legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state, and supporters say it offers a compassionate response to the pain and suffering of terminally ill patients.
But Father Landry challenged that assertion during an address that outlined long-standing moral opposition to euthanasia, explained the cultural context for recent efforts to legalize such practices, and noted the particular concerns posed by the ballot measure.
"When someone is contemplating suicide at any age … the compassionate response is never to catalyze their suicide," he told the students gathered at the Harvard Catholic Center.
"Whether we become active in the fight against doctor-prescribed suicide may make the difference between lives being saved or tragically ended," he added, during remarks that recalled the tragedy of several student suicides during his own undergraduate years.
As Catholic leaders throughout the state of Massachusetts gear up for an uphill battle to prevent a new beachhead for assisted suicide, Father Landry’s speech at Harvard showcased the Church’s multifaceted argument for voting against "Question 2" — the shorthand term for the ballot initiative that has begun to appear in media campaigns launched by state coalitions on both sides of the issue.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has made the defeat of the ballot measure a central mission for the local Church.
"This is an encroachment of the culture of death [philosophy, which states]: The autonomous self needs to be in control of every moment of our lives, and if we aren’t in control, the quality of life is such that we would be better off dead," Cardinal O’Malley said during an interview.
"This sends a terrible message to people in the disability community, and they stand opposed to this with us."
In February, a video homily by the cardinal was aired during Sunday Masses, the first step of a broad-based campaign to draw Catholics as well as the general public into the fight against the ballot initiative.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference is a driving force in the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide, a state-wide coalition that has attracted a number of religious groups, as well as organizations like the Hospice and Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians and the National Council on Disability.
Committee members have updated their constituencies, developed voter-education websites, and have just launched a media campaign to explain their concerns on television and radio shows. In the final stretch before the election, they will provide campaign ads showcasing their concerns.
"The focus is to help people appreciate the dangers of assisted suicide and of the bill itself," Janet Benestad, the Boston Archdiocese’s secretary for faith formation and evangelization, told the Register.
While Benestad leads the effort to galvanize Catholics, the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide will continue to reach out to other groups within the state.
"We appreciate that not everyone is with us on this, but we still want them to look at this particular bill," she said.
In May, the archdiocese hosted the first round of parish workshops that outlined the Church’s opposition to euthanasia and provided a forum for physicians and ethicists to explain how assisted suicide poses a direct challenge to a central precept of the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm." The oath also states, "To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death."
There will be another round of parish workshops and a second video homily by Cardinal O’Malley, who has also called for a Rosary novena Oct. 3-11.
"We are asking families and institutions throughout the (state) dioceses to pray for the defeat of a bill that does not defend life and to protect those who are terminally ill from assisted suicide," said Benestad.
With such efforts, the Church is trying to provide a compelling and integrated defense of the dignity of human life at all stages, including the final months or weeks of life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that dying patients may discontinue "overzealous treatment" and clarifies, "Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate" (2278).
But it categorically rejects all forms of euthanasia: "An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator" (2277).
That teaching was once widely accepted in the West and strongly reaffirmed after the Second World War, when Hitler’s policy of "mercy killings" of mentally impaired people was denounced at the Nuremberg war crime trials.
Yet, decades later, in the Netherlands, following a series of court cases, physicians who helped patients kill themselves escaped prosecution. In 2002, the practice was codified into law; euthanasia and assisted suicide are now legal in the Netherlands under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, critics have repeatedly warned that involuntary euthanasia has become widespread.
In the United States, Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1997, and Washington legalized it in 2008.
Massachusetts could be next. While the state has a 42% Catholic population, according to 2008 statistics from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, polling of state voters in the months leading into the November election has consistently pointed to strong support for the ballot measure. A Suffolk University/WHDH-TV survey released on Sept. 17 confirmed that trend.
The political coalition endorsing the ballot measure, Dignity 2012, presents itself as a group of "concerned citizens supporting the proposed Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act, leading the way to bring state-monitored physician-hastened dying for terminally ill adult residents," but its website documents its ties to a national center and a political action fund focused on the "political defense of the Oregon law and the promotion of death-with-dignity initiatives in other states."
In recent years, physician-assisted suicide has been presented in a sympathetic light in films like Million Dollar Baby, and Church leaders acknowledge that the strong individualistic ethos that defines American culture sees a value in practices that promise to allow patients to control the dying process.
But media coverage of this issue rarely addresses the dangers posed by legalized assisted suicide, and the Boston Archdiocese has deployed experts to share some troubling facts with parishioners.
Local Catholics have learned that legalized assisted suicide can foster acceptance of suicide as a solution for people who are not facing imminent death and even lead to involuntary euthanasia of such patients, as physicians are tempted to take control of life and death, with or without patient consent. Information about the impact of Oregon’s laws has been posted on the website of Physicians Against Suicide, a member of the coalition opposing Question 2.
Now, as the nation continues an intense debate over health-care reform and proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, opponents of assisted suicide argue that the soaring costs associated with end-of-life care will only encourage such abuses.
"Once assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon, it was given a high ‘cost-effectiveness’ rating in the state’s rationed Medicaid plan," said Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"So some patients in need of potentially life-prolonging treatments for serious illnesses have received notices that the state will not pay for the treatment they want, but will be glad to subsidize an assisted suicide. The addition of these cost-cutting measures should be a truly frightening prospect for all of us."
At Boston parish workshops, speakers have addressed the specific limitations of the Massachusetts bill. For example, people who are terminally ill and are expected to live less than six months would be able to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose without a psychological evaluation, even though depression is a common problem, and many such patients live well beyond their physician’s expectations.
Further, family members who might materially benefit from a relative’s death could serve as witnesses. But, on the other hand, the bill also provides no mechanism for informing family members that a loved one is contemplating physician-assisted suicide.
Indeed, while advocates for assisted suicide contend that the choice should be left to the individual, the Church has repudiated the notion that such tragic decisions will have an isolated impact.
"It is a social decision: a decision that involves the person to be killed, the doctor doing the killing, and the complicity of a society that condones the killing," read a 2000 pastoral letter on euthanasia written by then-Bishop Sean O’Malley of Fall River.
That message was to be repeated at an Oct. 3 "virtual town-hall meeting" broadcast on the Catholic TV network. The event was to provide another opportunity for a panel of experts to make their case.
At such forums, experts have called for the expansion of palliative-care programs that provide effective pain management as an important element of a truly humane response to the suffering of the terminally ill.
In 2011, the U.S. bishops released "To Live Each Day With Dignity: A Statement on Assisted Suicide," which acknowledged that "many people fear the dying process. They are afraid of being kept alive past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, being abandoned or becoming a burden on others," read the statement.
The Boston Archdiocese has sought to address such concerns, in part, by helping pastors to effectively explain the Church’s holistic view of end-of-life care and reject the false choice presented by Question 2’s proponents. Palliative-care options are part of that message, but the faithful are also reminded that true Christian compassion asks believers to accompany loved ones who are suffering and to offer up the pain as a means of sharing in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
On Aug. 8, Jesuit Father Myles Sheehan, the provincial of the New England Province of Jesuits and a physician with expertise in geriatrics and palliative care, met with local priests to explain the relevant theological, moral and medical issues and urge them to take part in the fight against the ballot initiative.
The USCCB’s Richard Doerflinger reports that "the assisted-suicide movement’s efforts to write its agenda into law have generally failed. Recently, such laws were rejected in New Hampshire and Vermont and by Massachusetts’ own legislature," he noted.
"They now hope that a heavily funded media campaign hailing ‘choice’ will have an emotional appeal for voters that makes them ignore such laws’ real-world impact on seniors and people with illnesses or disabilities, as well as depressed people generally."
But the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide is matching that effort with its own political campaign. It has raised about $900,000, with a hefty assist from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
Those funds have been used to hire a top campaign strategist, draw in more like-minded state groups, develop the StopAssistedSuicide.org website and fund a blitz of television and radio advertising during the final stretch before the election.
Mark Horan, a spokesman for the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide and a senior vice president for Rasky Baerlein, the strategy group hired to direct the 2012 campaign, said he was confident that state voters would keep an open mind on the issue, despite the polling.
"We know that even politically attuned and sophisticated people don’t know this is on the ballot. You can also be assured that people don’t know about the flaws in the way it was written or would be implemented," said Horan.
"We decided to spend all of our efforts over the summer on building a broad coalition. We needed people of all faiths and other walks of life that are clearly affected by this, like doctors, nurses and hospice workers, average citizens," he said, an implicit suggestion that the Church’s stance would likely not be a deciding factor for many state voters.
"We are working on our Web presence and starting to optimize our search capacity to drive people to the content, and we’re getting a ton of media requests — mini debates on radio and television," he added.
Horan did not want to provide specifics on the committee’s fundraising goals, though Boston Globe coverage and other local media predicted that each side in the fight will try to raise at least $3 million. In his interview with the Register, Cardinal O’Malley stressed that the coalition opposing passage of the Death With Dignity Act needed additional financial support to fund its upcoming advertising campaign.
While the professional campaign strategists work their strategy, Massachusetts pastors like Father Roger Landry will be doing their part.
But whether or not assisted suicide is legalized in the state, the Fall River priest believes that the Church must continue its catechetical work and engage an ethos of individualism that uncritically embraces the goal of radical autonomy.
During his address at the Harvard Catholic Center, Father Landry reminded students of the compelling witness of Blessed John Paul II, who struggled for years with Parkinson’s disease before his death. "The Pope wrote: "True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."