Austrian Catholic Leader Deplores Court Ruling on Assisted Suicide

Cardinal Schönborn said that the elderly and ill would face increasing pressure to opt for assisted suicide.

A daughter holds her mother's hand in the hospital.
A daughter holds her mother's hand in the hospital. (photo: Patrick Thomas / Shutterstock)

VIENNA, Austria — An Austrian Catholic archbishop expressed dismay after the country’s top court ruled that assisted suicide should no longer be a criminal offense.

In a Dec. 11 statement, Archbishop Franz Lackner said that the court’s judgment that the ban on assisted suicide was unconstitutional was a fundamental “cultural breach.”

“Up until now, every person in Austria could assume that their life was considered to be unconditionally valuable — up to their natural death. With its decision, the supreme court removed an essential basis for this consensus,” said the president of Austria’s Catholic bishops’ conference.

The constitutional court argued in its Dec. 11 ruling that the country’s criminal code is unconstitutional because its ban on assisted suicide violates the right to self-determination. It ordered the government to lift the prohibition in 2021.

Assisted suicide is currently punishable by up to five years in prison. 

Archbishop Lackner, who succeeded Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as bishops’ conference president in June, criticized the court’s reasoning.

“Where the option is offered to take one’s own life with the support of others in crisis situations such as severe illness or old age, the pressure on sick and old people to make use of it increases,” he said. 

“You do not want to be a burden to relatives or society or to incur financial costs. Unfortunately, experience from Switzerland and other countries, where assisted suicide is already permitted, shows shockingly that the number of suicides is increasing sharply, especially among older people.”

He continued: “In this context, suicide is presented as a self-determined decision. What is overlooked is that the decision to take your own life is not a successful case of freedom, but a tragic expression of hopelessness and despair. Suicide does not provide an answer — instead, it opens up many questions.”

The ruling was also condemned by Archbishop Schönborn of Vienna, and Leopold Wimmer, president of the lay group Catholic Action Austria, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language partner agency.

Cardinal Schönborn told the Kronen Zeitung Dec. 13 that the elderly and ill would face increasing pressure to opt for assisted suicide.

He urged the country’s parliament to “search for good solutions with wisdom.” He also called for hospice care and the palliative network to be expanded so “that killing does not become routine.” 

Wimmer, head of Austria’s largest lay Catholic organization, called for a parliamentary inquiry, or similar process, to “ensure that no economic or other pressure is exerted on those affected.”

There are 4.98 million Catholics in Austria, according to official Church statistics, out of a population of nine million. 

Archbishop Lackner of Salzburg said that, in the wake of the ruling, the Church in Austria would increase its commitment to palliative care and hospices, as well as suicide prevention. 

“And we will work to ensure that no one in Austria — neither the person affected nor their relatives, neither service providers nor institutions — is pressured directly or indirectly to offer or use assisted suicide,” he said.

“We appeal to the legislature to exhaust every legal possibility in order to maintain the previous Austrian consensus as far as possible.”

A woman holding the hand of an elderly person at a hospital.

Raft of Assisted Suicide Laws Introduced in States

Both the states of Hawaii and Washington — where assisted suicide has been legal since 2019 and 2009, respectively — are now trying to expand the scope of health care workers eligible to prescribe lethal doses of medication.