Psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Hamilton co-founded Physicians for Compassionate Care with Dr. William Toffler when the two Catholic physicians saw the specter of legalized assisted suicide begin to emerge in Oregon. Their state is now the only one to have legalized assisted suicide — death by lethal overdose.
Physicians for Compassionate Care has now expanded to 40 states and counts about 2,000 members.
Dr. Hamilton and his wife Catherine, a mental health counselor, talked with Register correspondent Kate Ernsting about how their activism has drawn them more deeply into their Catholic faith and transformed their lives.
Kate Earnsting: How did Physicians for Compassionate Care come about?
Greg: In 1994, when the voters of Oregon were misled into approving the first referendum legalizing assisted suicide, I was devastated. I thought I had lost my profession. For 2,000 years the medical profession had valued human life as inherently valuable, but some doctors were going to treat some people's lives as if they weren't worth living.
So I felt a distinct calling — sudden and definite — to do something.
After Dr. Toffler and I formed it, Physicians for Compassionate Care became such a vibrant organization that we worked most evenings — giving testimony in legislatures and other forums. We testified before the U.S. Congress. We went to Poland. Cathy and I went to Rome and had an audience with the Pope while we were on a pilgrimage with Archbishop Vlasny. One of the high points of our lives was to receive the Holy Father's blessing.
Cathy: In 1994, it shocked me that my state had voted that one segment of the population could now just end their lives: the seriously ill, the most vulnerable. I had just spent 7 years of college learning how to prevent suicide.
I never thought [the law] would pass; when it did, it was a complete shock. I began to speak out at my place of employment, but that was now politically incorrect; it quickly became associated with the abortion issue and the Catholic issue. During that time, my government job got cut, and it was a blessing. I could counsel and write and answer the phone for Physicians for Compassionate Care.
Some callers were having problems getting care, so we set up a referral database to hook them up with doctors who respected their Hippocratic Oath and life. Others called by accident; I believe it was the Lord intervening. I could use my suicide counseling experience. Most were obviously depressed, in despair over a recent diagnosis. They could have contacted a doctor and got the packet that would enable them to get the suicide dose in two and a half weeks.
Greg: In Oregon we don't say “terminally ill”; it's become a stigmatizing term. These people who are most vulnerable are abandoned and treated as if their life is no longer worth living.
Cathy: What doctors need to do is impart hope to people. But suicide intervention stops, as soon as a terminal illness is mentioned.
What kinds of groups are represented in the coalition?
Greg: In promoting a culture of life, we have to reach out. Our group is a secular medical group; we oppose assisted suicide because it's bad medicine. We have Lutheran, Catholic, Mormon, Baptist and Quakers on our board and Jewish and Muslim members.
As an organization we are broad based. The Oregon Catholic Conference, and the three archbishops have been strong and powerful allies of Physician for Compassionate Care. We receive a lot of help from Richard Doerfllinger of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop John Vlasny puts on a Mass for all the health care professionals on St. Luke's day. Our former archbishop, now Cardinal George of Chicago, has been very supportive.
Cathy: Our lives were transformed by this. Every day, you have your plans, but every day you are open to what the Holy Spirit has for you to do. You start to live the Eucharistic lifestyle, and the Holy Spirit can interrupt you and give you things to do. What has been done has not been humanly possible; you know it required Something bigger than yourself.
How does your Catholic faith influence you? Do you derive support from your faith in fighting euthanasia?
Cathy: I'm a cradle Catholic and my husband's a convert. When we met, we had both been divorced and felt we needed to do things differently. We both got annulments and got married in the Church. This sacramental marriage laid the foundation for what we are doing now.
Greg: I was raised Protestant but I had stopped going to church. The sacramental aspect of marriage became very important.
Cathy: When we were first married, we attended Mass on Sunday. A priest encouraged us to pray more, and that laid a foundation too.
Greg: Now we go to Mass every day, and pray the rosary daily. We go on retreat regularly. We just believe we need these things because we are dealing with the media and various kinds of conflict. We need to expose the evils of what is going on with legalized euthanasia.
Cathy: I believe my husband had the calling to work against assisted suicide.