The passage of a bill enabling physicians in Vermont to legally euthanize terminally ill patients seeking to end their own lives is a further testament to the advancement of the culture of death in the United States. The Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act, voted on in mid-May by the Vermont State Senate, makes Vermont the fourth state in the country — after Washington, Oregon and Montana — to have legalized some manner of physician-assisted suicide and the first to do it via a state’s legislative branch.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the passage of the Vermont law was part of an “alarming trend nationwide” that destroys life instead of protecting it. Even more alarming is the fact that certain “safeguards” put in place by Vermont’s legislature — that is, that a patient must make three requests for the lethal medication (including one written), and that both the patient’s primary care physician and consulting doctor must agree the patient is terminally ill and of sound mind — will be dropped after three years. Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts all have considered similar legislation.

The issue of physician-assisted suicide isn’t just a hot topic locally. In the Netherlands, physician-assisted death has been the norm for more than 30 years, and some form of it is legal in 16 countries around the world.

Pro-life advocates fear that the passage of these so-called death with dignity bills will have “slippery slope” consequences, and they are correct. Only last December in Belgium, 45-year-old twins who had been born deaf asked to be euthanized when they found out they would lose their eyesight as well. Neither brother was in physical pain, nor terminally ill, but under the law didn’t have to be. They were legally killed Dec. 14.

Another frightening next step already in the works is the inclusion of minors into these laws. An amendment adding young people to the Belgian bill recently was tabled, but is expected to be debated in parliament.

On Heaven and Earth
"On Heaven and Earth"

In the book On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century, co-authored by Pope Francis when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope identified “covert euthanasia” as part of this slippery slope.

“The elderly are not taken care of like they should be, but rather they are treated as discarded material,” he wrote. “Sometimes they are deprived of medicine and ordinary care, and that is what is killing them.”

“The patient,” Pope Francis added, “must be given everything necessary and ordinary to be able to live while there is hope for life.”

In a society trending ever more toward secular and utilitarian values, our culture easily confuses murder via euthanasia with “mercy” and “choice.” The decisions of how, when and where to die are lauded as “personal freedoms,” “control” and “empowerment.” But choosing death, as Pope Francis said, not only negates our faith in the dignity of the persons God created us to be, it negates hope.

The time is long past for Catholics to begin exercising vigilance where euthanasia is concerned. With the passage of each law, advocates of “death with dignity” legislation find a stronger voice. The lay faithful must drown out this attempt to redefine mercy by educating themselves on euthanasia and by insisting that life be respected from conception all the way to natural death. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor