To with disabilities worried about assisted suicide? Many
To sanction the taking of innocent human life is to contradict a primary
purpose of law in an ordered society. A law or court decision allowing
assisted suicide would demean the lives of vulnerable patients and expose
them to exploitation by those who feel they are better off dead. Such a
policy would corrupt the medical profession, whose ethical code calls on
physicians to serve life and never to kill. The voiceless or marginalized
in our society — the poor, the frail elderly, racial minorities, millions
of people who lack health insurance — would be the first to feel pressure
What about competent, terminally ill people who say they really want
Suicidal wishes among the terminally ill are no less due to treatable
depression than the same wishes among the able-bodied. When their pain,
depression and other problems are addressed, there is generally no more
talk of suicide. If we respond to a death wish in one group of people with
counseling and suicide prevention, and respond to the same wish in another
group by offering them lethal drugs, we have made our own tragic choice as
a society that some people’s lives are objectively not worth protecting.
How does cost enter into this issue?
In an era of cost control and managed care, patients with lingering
illnesses may be branded an economic liability, and decisions to encourage
death can be driven by cost. As Acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter
Dellinger warned in urging the Supreme Court to uphold laws against
assisted suicide: “The least costly treatment for any illness is lethal
Why are people with disabilities worried about assisted suicide?
Many people with disabilities have long experience with prejudicial
attitudes on the part of able-bodied people, including physicians, who say
they would “rather be dead than disabled.” Such prejudices could easily
lead families, physicians and society to encourage death for people who are
depressed and emotionally vulnerable as they adjust to life with a serious
illness or disability. To speak here of a “free choice” for suicide is a
dangerously misguided abstraction.
What is the view of the medical profession?
The American Medical Association holds that “physician-assisted suicide is
fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” The AMA,
along with the American Nurses Association, American Psychiatric
Association and dozens of other medical groups, has urged the Supreme Court
to uphold laws against assisted suicide, arguing that the power to assist
in taking patients’ lives is “a power that most health care professionals
do not want and could not control.”
What does the Church teach?
Our moral tradition holds that human life is the most basic gift from a
loving God — a gift over which we have stewardship, not absolute dominion.
As responsible stewards of life, we must never directly intend to cause our
own death or that of anyone else. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are
always gravely wrong.
What about related issues, such as withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment?
Careful stewardship of life does not demand that we always use every
possible means to prolong life. Treatment can be refused by a terminally
ill patient when its burdens outweigh its benefits for that patient. In
such cases, the basic care owed to every human being should still be
provided. We may reject particular treatments because they are too
burdensome; we must never destroy a human life on the ground that it is a
How is the practice of giving dying patients pain medication different from
The intent of modern pain management is to control patients’ pain, not to
kill the patient. Rarely is there any risk that pain medication will
shorten a patient’s life by suppressing respiration, even as a side-effect,
because patients regularly receiving morphine for pain control quickly
develop a resistance to this effect. With modern pain control methods,
physical suffering can be brought under control for all dying patients,
almost always without resorting to sedation. As Pope John Paul II has said,
pain management and other supportive care is “the way of love and true
mercy” that we should offer to all dying patients, instead of offering to
assist their suicides.
What is the lesson of the Netherlands on assisted suicide?
For years Dutch courts have allowed physicians to practice euthanasia and
assisted suicide with impunity, supposedly only in cases where desperately
ill patients have unbearable suffering. In a few years, however, Dutch
policy and practice have expanded to allow the killing of people with
disabilities or even physically healthy people with psychological distress;
thousands of patients have been killed by their doctors without their
request. The Dutch example teaches us that the “slippery slope” is very