Anti-Catholic Bias in Mercy-Killing Campaign?

As Washington staters prepare to vote on a referendum that could allow assisted suicide in the state, proponents of the referendum have been misrepresenting the Catholic position.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Church is becoming a target of proponents of a ballot initiative that would legalize doctor-assisted suicide in Washington state.

The Church denies any inappropriateness in anti-suicide efforts, which now include ads featuring actor Martin Sheen, a Catholic.

“Catholic Church Funnels Abuse Money into I-1000 Opposition,” claims a headline on the website of Compassion & Choices, which is pushing the initiative. The story claims that the Public Disclosure Commission reported that “out-of-state sexual abuse reparations” are being sent to help fund the anti-assisted suicide effort in Washington state. (More on Washington’s assisted suicide bill, page 3.)

But opponents point out that no report exists showing a connection between funds for sexual abuse reparations and donations to the anti-assisted suicide organization. The Public Disclosure Commission merely lists the donors to campaigns, which, for the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, happens to include donations from several Catholic dioceses around the country.

But the constant refrain in media reports about Washington’s effort to legalize assisted suicide is that “the Catholic Church is the main contributor” to the anti-assisted suicide coalition. It’s become the tag line for the pro-initiative group Yes on I-1000, as well as one of its chief “scare” tactics, aimed at those living in an unchurched region.

Joel Connelly, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, wrote recently that: “While it doesn’t carry the full stench of bigotry, I-1000 campaigners are dispensing noxious stuff, at least to a chosen few of the secular faithful.”

In his column on “Catholic baiting” by the pro-assisted suicide camp, Connelly revealed a memo dispatched by Anne Martens, the pro-initiative group’s communications director. Martens referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s September visit to Lourdes, where he stated: “Dignity never abandons the sick person.” The Pope said that people must accept death at “the hour chosen by God.”

Martens suggested that the Pope “does not go into detail about God’s appointment book, although many doctors note that God is, in fact, kept waiting past the chosen hour due to medical interventions that artificially extend life [but do not end suffering]. Perhaps God is running late.” “In an America where any remark hinting of prejudice can force its maker into endless mea culpas, the mocking of a world religious leader ought to invite political suicide,” Connelly, an “Anglican Catholic,” wrote.

But the Church appeared to be exempt, he said, at least by “some advocates of Initiative 1000.”

Connelly said the memo “demeans fundamental questions raised in the Pope’s speech,” questions that are being raised in the discussion surrounding assisted suicide, he noted.

‘We Respect Faith, But’

When questioned about the attempts to target the Church and its involvement in defeating an initiative on physician-assisted suicide, Anne Martens stated: “We respect everybody’s faith, but we don’t think they should impose it on the entire state.”

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices — the Oregon-based organization funding the pro-death initiative — distanced herself from Martens by saying that the director of communications, is “a political operative [who] speaks for the campaign, not for me or Compassion & Choices.”

However, Lee then described the Church as being “as much a vast and powerful political force as it is a religion.” She believes the Church’s lobbyists “wield enormous power in statehouses and Congress, influencing lawmakers to embed Catholic doctrine in law,” adding that “Catholic lobbying and political tactics are relentless and ruthless.”

The Church has “no more moral authority as a lobbyist and political operative than any other corporate entity furthering its self-interest through political means,” she emphasized. She wrote off the accusations of “Catholic baiting” as merely “naming a powerful political force and defending against it.”

Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, is all too familiar with the strategies used by Compassion & Choices and their Yes on I-1000 campaign. She said that before the Church began to publicly respond to the threat of the assisted suicide initiative, pro-initiative campaigners claimed that the Church “will be the enemy.”

This just confirms to Sister Sharon that I-1000 proponents may fear they don’t have the votes, so they resort to “creating an enemy.” But far from being discouraged, she said that the Washington State Catholic Conference of Bishops believes that “not only do we have the right to be involved in this anti-assisted suicide campaign, we have an obligation to do so.”

The Church’s teachings “are very clear and very strong that patients always have the right to withhold or withdraw medical treatments and technology if there is no hope for recovery,” said Sister Sharon. The Church’s long history of caring for the poor, vulnerable and sick is in stark contrast to what is offered in the assisted suicide legislation. Instead of providing a lethal overdose, “we provide care,” she said.

“Why would we not alleviate suffering rather than eliminating the one who suffers,” Sister Sharon argued. “There is no reason for this initiative. Compassion & Choices is playing on emotion, fear and anti-Catholic bias.”

Connelly recalled that when he first wrote about assisted suicide — focusing on the personal experience of dealing with his father’s prostate cancer and eventual death, “a political consultant for the Initiative 1000 campaign sent me a nasty e-mail, telling me to ‘keep your religious beliefs to yourself.’” 

Connelly said: “I had to ask myself:  Did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. keep his religious beliefs to himself?”

Martin Sheen

But the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide seems to not be fazed about anti-Catholic bias as it launches a $750,000 broadcast advertising campaign, headlining actor Martin Sheen speaking out against I-1000.

Chris Carlson, chairman of the coalition, stated that Sheen, an “outstanding actor and a person of impeccable integrity,” is also noted for his “tireless efforts to help low-income people [and] vulnerable populations.” Carlson said Sheen’s concern has “earned him the reputation of a man who is compassionate and walks his talk.”

Sheen, a Catholic, emphasized that he wanted to make a statement against assisted suicide when he heard about I-1000, adding that he wanted “to help stop it before it harms people who are at risk.”

Sheen explained that we have a health-care system “where the more money you have, the better medical care you receive.” The actor concluded: “Initiative 1000 is a dangerous idea — because so many people do not have the money necessary to get the care they need.”

Carlson pointed to the proponents of Initiative 1000, who believe that “assisted suicide is favored by good Democrats, liberals and progressives. But that’s just not the case.” He acknowledged: “I’m a Democrat; Martin Sheen is a Democrat; and many people opposed to I-1000 are progressives — and that’s why we’re opposed.”

Elenor Shoen is based

in Shoreline, Washington.