Catholics rally against growing tide of legal euthanasia

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Eight.

That’s the number of states in which assisted suicide is now legal.

Maine became the latest on June 12.

Explaining her rationale for signing the legislation, Gov. Janet Mills acknowledged the law creates “a moral dilemma” and said she hopes “this law, while respecting the right to personal liberty, will be used sparingly.”

Given the trend of bills being introduced throughout the country, experts say it’s unlikely. This year, at least 18 states considered similar legislation.

According to Deb Niesen, archdiocesan pro-life consultant, Kansans tend to think it won’t happen here. 

“I can see why people in Kansas think we’re kind of immune to this,” she said, “but we’re not.

“Kansas has strong pro-life legislators, so they tend to stop any traction of bills as they are introduced. But the fact of the matter is, they are still being introduced every year.”

In fact, during this past legislative session which ended in May, a lawmaker proposed the Kansas Death with Dignity Act. 

“This went nowhere, but basically what this bill said is that an adult suffering from a terminal disease and who has voluntarily expressed a wish to die could make a written request for a prescription for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner,” Niesen said.

“Obviously, we would disagree with the wording on that,” she added. “It’s just an example of a bill that was introduced this year and, thanks be to God, went nowhere. But yes, it is happening.”

Activists push for euthanasia in Kansas

Niesen said she regularly touches base with the Kansas Catholic Conference and pro-life organizations such as Kansans for Life to stay current with pending legislation that contradicts Catholic moral teaching.

And she knows that people like Jeanne Gawdun, a senior lobbyist with Kansans for Life, watch proposed bills focusing on the sanctity of human life.  

Those experts, she said, are painfully aware of the push by the assisted suicide movement to pass legislation in every state.

Gawdun, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka for more than 30 years, agrees with Niesen’s assessment: a strongly pro-life Kansas Legislature can currently prevent euthanasia legislation from making it to either chambers’ floor for a vote. But that doesn’t mean those who advocate for euthanasia and assisted suicide have stopped trying.

“Things are always popping up in different states,” Gawdun said, “and it’s been that way for years. 

“It just depends on what groups are active in a particular state. Like here in Kansas, we’ve had what they call a death with dignity [bill], which is also known as physician-assisted suicide, and there’s a group in Lawrence that’s been pushing that several times over the past 10 years.” 

In addition to legislation, those in favor of assisted suicide often lobby professional organizations to abandon their long-standing tradition of opposing physician-assisted suicide to positions of neutrality or pro-assisted suicide.

For example, Niesen pointed to a shift in wording by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) which recently ended its long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide. 

“Instead, they’ve adopted a position of what they’re calling ‘engaged neutrality,’” Niesen said. 

Euthanasia is not compassionate or Christ-like

“The fact that there’s been weakening of formal positions should be of big concern for Catholics,” Niesen said.

“This should be a wake-up call to us,” she continued, “that we need greater clarity on what our Catholic perspective is so that the average, common Catholic or even just citizen is hearing the other side of the message instead of the message our culture gives about taking the easy way out and that assisted suicide is compassionate. 

“So, we have to offer what we know and believe to be true compassion.”

The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots, “cum” and “pati.” “Cum” translates to “with,” and “pati” means “suffering or enduring.” So, true compassionate care, Niesen said, means walking alongside our brothers and sisters even when it’s most difficult.

What’s causing professional organizations to adopt once unthinkable positions and causing even faithful Catholics to consider assisted suicide? Niesen thinks there are a variety of reasons.

“The common citizen has just been convinced that assisted suicide is good and compassionate,” she said. “But as we know, it’s false compassion, and I think it’s being driven by our culture that associates the dignity of a person on their autonomy and their productivity and not understanding that a person’s dignity is given by our Creator.” 

“There’s an inherent dignity that comes from the recognition that humans are created in the image and likeness of God,” added Niesen. “There’s been a lack of education that life is a gift from God and that we are stewards of this gift from God.

“Instead, in our culture, there’s such an emphasis right now on personal choice, on individual freedom, instead of [that] your life is a gift and you’re a steward of that gift. I think that fuels [the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement].”

Gawdun agrees.

Ironically, Gawdun said, people who advocate for assisted suicide tend to want to end the death penalty, arguing it’s cruel and unusual punishment. And the reality is, assisted suicide involves other people, as well as state government.

“You’re not doing this in and of yourself,” she said. 

People have to obtain drugs from those authorized to prescribe and dispense them, professionals who have to meet legal standards passed by government officials.

 “They forget that it does affect others,” she concluded. 

And those who die don’t think about the anguish and emotional distress they inflict upon their families or the long-term impact on those left behind — often because their depression doesn’t allow them to think clearly about the matter.

“Who does it harm the most?” she asked. “It’s all about the survivors.”

 Fear is the real motivator

In addition to framing assisted suicide as a matter of choice, Niesen said that the movement tends to feed on the fears of people. 

Citing statistics published by the state of Oregon (the first state to legalize assisted suicide) for the years between 1999 and 2010, Niesen said that patients did not list the prevention of pain as their leading reason for assisted suicide (see sidebar for actual numbers).

Other fears predominated, Niesen said, including the fear of losing autonomy, fear of being unable to do things, fear of being abandoned and fear of becoming a burden on family members.

“Instead of the Catholic compassionate choice — for family members to say, ‘No, your life has value to me. You’re important to me. You’re important to our family, and our focus should be on managing comfort and helping that human remain in dignity’ — mainstream culture’s answer is similar to its response to a woman who finds herself facing an unexpected pregnancy. Instead of receiving encouragement about being able to care for a child, oftentimes women are counseled to abort their children.

“The best thing people counsel these women to do is death,” lamented Niesen, adding that the same applies to the other end of life’s spectrum.

Niesen said a Catholic’s response should not be sugarcoated, but it should be compassionate. 

“This isn’t easy. This is hard,” she said. “But we’re here to be with you through this time in your life while you’re most vulnerable. That’s what true Catholic compassion is.”

Suicide is never an answer

Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer, author and consultant to the Patients’ Rights Council, said American culture sends mixed messages about suicide.

In his book “Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine,” Smith writes: “The United States is growing progressively pro-suicide.”

There are currently more than 100,000 suicide sites on the internet, he said, many which are highly graphic and feature suicide notes, death certificates and photographs. 

“The popular culture is beginning to view suicide as ‘just another option among many that should be available to suffering people,’” he said.

Dr. Patrick Herrick, a physician, Prince of Peace in Olathe parishioner and a member of the archdiocesan ethics advisory council, concurs.

Within his own practice, he said, the topic comes up rarely.

But when it does, he uses it as an opportunity to educate patients.

“From a medical standpoint, it’s good to bring up that medicine is here to relieve suffering,” he said. “And so, a large part of the history of medicine is entwined with Christian ideals from the good Samaritan. 

“It’s good to emphasize doctors can always work on relieving suffering.”

Pressure to choose death

 Smith argues that, based on his more than 25 years of studying the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement expand steadily across the country, the right to die is rapidly becoming a duty to die in hospitals across the nation.

“Whereas providing intensive treatment used to be the standard of care, today’s biases push forcefully against providing expensive care, particularly when the patient is elderly, dying or significantly disabled,” Smith writes.

“Patients or families who request ‘disfavored’ treatments,” he continued, “often find themselves pushed, pressured and cajoled by doctors, nurses, social workers, hospital chaplains and bioethics committees to change their minds.”

Take, for example a document now found in most hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities across both Kansas and Missouri.

Known a TPOP for short, the Transportable Physician Orders for Patients form is typically printed on hot pink-colored paper and is intended to follow patients from facility to facility. Produced by the Center for Practical Bioethics based in Kansas City, many pro-life advocates find the document particularly troubling for a number of reasons.

Dr. Austin Welch, a geriatrician and member of the archdiocesan ethics advisory council, said Section C of the document — the section that focuses on food and hydration — allows people to make decisions that are contrary to church teaching.

“We’re very concerned about the Center for Practical Bioethics and its Transportable Orders,” he said. “People don’t really see the problem in this. Ninety percent of the document is OK, but when you get down to feeding and hydration, they assume it’s OK to let people not eat or not feed, and thereby die. And they think that people have a right to forgo feeding. 

“Of course, the church teaches us that we have an obligation to feed others, even when they can’t pick up the fork themselves or can’t swallow.”

“We’ve got people who are dying because people aren’t feeding them and we’ve got people who are dying because they choose to die, they choose not to eat.”

According to Welch, people are saying ahead of time they don’t want a feeding tube, even if they can digest the food. 

“There are doctors and hospitals who are only too happy to accommodate them,” he said.

Even more troubling, said Welch, is that doctors often try to stop people from choosing feeding tubes for themselves or their loved ones.

But Welch has found that many of the stroke patients he’s treated, along with their families, have eventually chosen feeding tubes even when they have, at first, insisted they didn’t want them.

Welch, who places feeding tubes in patients, generally frames the discussion with patients and their families as an option that allows them time to get stronger and work with therapists to regain speech and swallowing functions. 

When the feeding tube option is presented in that manner, he said, nearly every patient will choose it.

How to prevent pro-euthanasia legislation

Though assisted suicide is already legal in some states, it can be thwarted in others.

Education, Niesen said, is the key on this issue and so many other important topics. 

“So many people have not gotten solid catechesis and perhaps haven’t been taught about the truth and beauty of our Catholic teachings. 

“Unfortunately, our culture is loud, loud, loud everywhere we go. It’s so easy for people to lose their way and feel like this is the loving and compassionate thing when it isn’t. And that’s the problem.”

Niesen said Catholics should also become more educated on the values of hospice care, especially through agencies such as Catholic Community Hospice.

Smith agrees.

 “We desperately need to improve our end-of-life care,” he writes, “specifically by reforming hospice so that — instead of taking lethal actions — it becomes normalized as the true ‘death with dignity.’”

Finally, both Welch and Herrick urge Catholics to educate themselves on the church’s teaching, particularly when it comes to health care decisions, and then to live out that teaching.  

Catholics should welcome aging parents into their own homes, Welch said, and visit those in nursing homes and hospitals, especially those who have been forgotten.

“We should actually see them as Christ. We should go out of our way to visit these abandoned. . . . The works of mercy are something we need to take seriously. We’ve been neglecting a lot of them.”

“We need to show how God values these people. If we don’t do it, nobody will,” he said.

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