In what will be a defining moment for the people of Canada, lawmakers in the country are expected to formally legalize physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia June 6. Immensely troubling, the passage of such legislation marks the conclusion of a process that began in February 2015, when the Supreme Court of Canada first overturned the country’s law criminalizing the act.
“We need to understand the destructive implications of these legal changes and offer truly loving and merciful alternatives,” Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto said in March.
For those of us in the United States, the situation is not yet so dire. But while federal legislation on physician-assisted suicide currently is not in play, steady inroads are being made at the state level. In addition to the five states in which physician-assisted suicide already is legal (California’s End of Life Option Act takes effect June 9), an astounding 19 states so far this year are considering, or have considered, similar so-called “death with dignity” statutes. Catholics are compelled to fight such momentum, lest we find ourselves citizens of a country where death both at the very beginning and at the very end of life not only is legal but is championed. Regrettably, the new laws are propelled in part by rapidly shifting public opinion. According to a survey conducted last May, 68 percent of U.S. adults support physician-assisted suicide for those terminally ill and living in severe pain — up by 10 percentage points since the year before. Among young adults, the number leaps to 81 percent. These numbers are somewhat understandable when one views physician-assisted suicide through the proponents’ cloudy lens of “mercy” (no small irony during this Year of Mercy). But when looked at closely, it is not difficult to see the many inherent dangers that lurk behind this false veneer of compassion — dangers not just to people of faith but to society as a whole:
— As with abortion, physician-assisted suicide equates “health care” with the taking of a life, a dangerous premise for all who rely on medical care in this country.
— With physician-assisted suicide as an option, the elderly and those with disabilities increasingly may view themselves as a financial, emotional or physical burden to their next of kin and may see ending their own lives as an act of service to their loved ones. This is coercion.
— As evidenced by Belgium and the Netherlands, which legalized euthanasia in 2002, once the door to assisted suicide is cracked, it will continue to widen. In Belgium, minors may now choose to end their own lives. In the Netherlands, the number of people suffering from mental illness who chose to euthanize themselves has quadrupled since 2011.
Such disturbing scenarios chip away at the foundation of what it means to live in a free and just society. As people of faith, we have the responsibility first and foremost to work to protect the weakest and most vulnerable among us — many of whom will be in grave danger from physician-assisted suicide. As legislation is crafted, we also must advocate that conscience protection for both individuals and Catholic institutions be an integral and irrevocable part of the language. Finally, we must seek to educate and form ourselves — and particularly our youth — on the Church’s end-of-life teachings. Once formed, we must be unafraid to speak with clear conviction about its dangers for society as a whole. As Cardinal Collins said, “Dying is simply not the same as being killed.” We must work hard not to allow it to be treated as such.
Editorial Board: Scot Landry, chief mission officer; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor