BRANFORD – Even on a Saturday morning, about 20 people turned out to hear a panel of experts speak about a heavy topic, the Catholic case against physician-assisted suicide, at a forum on Nov. 8. The hotly contested topic is expected to be raised in the next session of the General Assembly.
Four panelists spoke at St. Mary Parish about doctrinal foundations against assisted suicide, hospice care as a life-promoting way of dealing with end-of-life issues, pain management for the terminally ill and state legislative initiatives.
“This is by no means a Catholic-only issue,” said attorney and moderator Brian Hoeing. “This affects both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
“What we’re talking about with assisted suicide,” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, “is a law where a doctor determines that you have six months or less to live…you’re terminally ill and mentally competent, then you can go to a doctor with two witnesses and request drugs to take your own life.”
“It’s bad public policy that puts vulnerable populations at risk” – the elderly, disabled and mentally and terminally ill, he said.
Currently legal in Oregon, Washington and Vermont, physician-assisted suicide is supported by Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, and is funded by billionaire George Soros and supported by population control institutes, according to Mr. Wolfgang.
“It’s about cost control and population control,” he noted. “It’s not about pain, and it’s not about choice. There are other agendas at play here having to do with health care and cost rationing.”
Supporters of the legislation call it “aid in dying” and “death with dignity,” he said. “But there’s nothing dignified about this.”
A misunderstanding is the belief that opponents “want to keep patients alive by extraordinary means against the patient’s will,” he said.
“No one supports that,” he said. “What we oppose is the licensing of doctors to prescribe suicide by lethal drugs as a treatment, and granting legal immunity to the people who then help you kill yourself.”
Sister John Mary Sullivan, a licensed family and marriage therapist and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, said assisted suicide “increases pressure on the most vulnerable, undermines family relationships and undermines the relationship between the patient and family,” among other effects.
“We do not have the right to kill,” she said. “That’s not true freedom that is seeking the good of others. It is not the proper use of free will.”
Rather, “each and every person from conception to natural death is made in the image and likeness of God,” she said. “That is our dignity.”
“The mantra used by supporters, such as, ‘I have a right to die with dignity,’ ‘My life, my body, my choice,’ makes freedom simply free choice…my choice,” she continued.
“It’s a skewed notion, as if we have the ultimate authority to choose life or death,” she argued. “But we do not have that freedom. We are not the creators. It’s a false notion of free choice. It makes freedom the end, not the means.”
Freedom serves love, and the greatest act of freedom is that you give yourself for the other,” said Sister John Mary. “Physician-assisted suicide skews that notion of freedom and therefore skews the notion of the nature of the human person.”
Speaking about hospice as a life-promoting way of dealing with end-of-life issues was Sister Catherine Mary Clarke, also a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist. A social worker, she helped to establish the first hospice in Rome with the Circolo San Pietro.
“The more I do this work, the more humbled I am,” she said. “The challenge is, we do not control and are not intended to control our dying processes.”
She noted that the dying process can be the most beautiful experience “because of one’s union with Christ in his dying process. That’s what we’re living for. We’re living to die in body and go back to God. And every decision, every moment of our lives in some way reflects our preparation for the dying process.”
Dr. Joseph Andrews, chief medical officer of The Connecticut Hospice Inc., explained that the purpose of hospice care is to relieve pain, shortness of breath, anxiety, confusion and distress at the end of life, “but not to take life.”
He acknowledged that “most people are afraid of dying with no support” and of “being locked in,” especially among patients diagnosed with neurologic impairments, Lou Gehrig’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
“If we could get involved with patients who are incurably, seriously ill” a year or sooner into their diagnosis, “most of the issues of physician-assisted suicide would not come up,” he said.
Dr. Andrews noted that there’s “a certain coldness,” a “certain rigidity” about assisted suicide that works to “make one thing fit anything.”
“It’s a twist on autonomy because it negates what we are trying to do,” which is to alleviate suffering, handle mortality, handle issues of being human and help one another.
The purpose of physician-assisted suicide is to administer one-to-two large doses of medication that will result in death, he said.
“I would feel terribly degraded if I wrote a prescription for a lethal dose of medication,” he reflected. “It’s not what I’m functioning to do, and it diminishes the patient, as well.”
Like unlimited abortion and capital punishment, he noted, “Ultimately it’s uncivilized. It’s not what we’re about.”
The forum was one of several such events sponsored in November by the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Pro-Life Ministry, the Diocese of Bridgeport’s Respect Life Office and the Connecticut Catholic Conference and Family Institute of Connecticut.