The Catholic Voices Blog
The New York Times published a number of letters this week in response to a recent house editorial on end-of life issues, but none of them pointed out this disappointing irony: that the Times caricatured individuals who promote the sanctity of life as “fear-mongers” while justifying Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) by citing fears associated with aging. It’s also unfortunate the Times praised Oregon for its “comprehensive approach to end-of-life decisions” without referencing the fact that Oregon’s suicide rate has increased to 35 percent above the national average since it began qualifying life. According to the CDC, Oregon is now one of the ten most suicidal states in the nation.
I applaud the Times for promoting the care of senior citizens, but people only care for that which they value. When society marginalizes advanced stages of life, we become less inclined to provide the elderly with the level of care they truly deserve. Old age can be tough on individuals and their families, but should we really be putting a price tag on our grandparents' final days?
Good news from election day: Massachusetts voters defeated Question 2, which would have allowed assisted suicide in the state. Cardinal Sean O'Malley and the Archdiocese of Boston helped lead a diverse coalition opposing the bill, changing public opinion dramatically with their campaign against the measure. In early October polls showed two-thirds of voters supported Question 2; on Tuesday it lost by two points. One key to that loss was the opposition of Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who wrote an eloquent op-ed against Question 2 shortly before voters went to the polls:
The language of the proposed law is not about bringing family together to make end of life decisions; it's intended to exclude family members from the actual decision-making process to guard against patients' being pressured to end their lives prematurely. It's not about doctors administering drugs such as morphine to ease patients' suffering; it's about the oral ingestion of up to 100 capsules without requirement or expectation that a doctor be present. It's not about giving choice and self-determination to patients with degenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer's; those patients are unlikely to qualify under the statute. It's not, in my judgment, about death with dignity at all.
My late husband Sen. Edward Kennedy called quality, affordable health care for all the cause of his life. Question 2 turns his vision of health care for all on its head by asking us to endorse patient suicide — not patient care — as our public policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens of care at the end of life. We're better than that. We should expand palliative care, pain management, nursing care and hospice, not trade the dignity and life of a human being for the bottom line.
In Massachusetts Catholics of all political views joined together to defeat a ballot that was profoundly at odds with the Catholic understanding of human dignity and the common good. Their successful effort should be a model for Catholics moving forward.
Next week Massachusetts will vote on Question 2, which would allow physician assisted suicide in the state. Cardinal Sean O'Malley has helped lead opposition to this ballot question, arguing that "true compassion does not put a lethal weapon, in this case a prescription of 100 capsules of Seconal, into the hands of a person to help take his or her life." As the American Medical Association has said,
Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks. Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life.
Opposition to assisted suicide need not break down along partisan lines. To take one prominent example, former Obama administration health care policy advisor Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel strongly opposes the practice. Writing at the New York Times' Opinionator blog, Emanuel notes that discussion of assisted suicide is characterized by "four major falsehoods": that most patients who seek it are suffering from severe pain; that "it is the inevitable result of a high tech medical culture"; "that it will improve the end of life for everyone; and "that it is a quick, painless, and guaranteed way to die." Like Cardinal O'Malley, Emanuel recognizes that the poor and vulnerable would suffer most if assisted suicide made legal:
Whom does legalizing assisted suicide really benefit? Well-off, well-educated people, typically suffering from cancer, who are used to controlling everything in their lives — the top 0.2 percent. And who are the people most likely to be abused if assisted suicide is legalized? The poor, poorly educated, dying patients who pose a burden to their relatives.
When it comes to this issue, Cardinal O'Malley and Dr. Emanuel agree on something else: the need to focus on palliative care. Here's Emanuel:
Instead of attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, we should focus our energies on what really matters: improving care for the dying — ensuring that all patients can openly talk with their physicians and families about their wishes and have access to high-quality palliative or hospice care before they suffer needless medical procedures.
As Catholic Voice Mark O'Neill says, we should "focus on eliminating suffering, not eliminating the sufferer."