AVON – Some argue that physician-assisted suicide is a humane way to end a person’s suffering. The Roman Catholic Church contends that there are other, more humane ways of caring for these people and that enabling doctors to allow them to end their lives is against church teaching on the right to life.
It was all discussed at “Assisted Suicide: Disguised as Death with Dignity,” a public forum held Feb. 22 at the Church of St. Ann. Approximately 100 people attended.
Legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide was proposed in the state legislature Jan. 23 and may be voted on in this year’s session. If approved, the bill would permit physicians to write prescriptions that could end a patient’s life.
The church has come out strongly in opposition to this legislation. Panel members said it opens the door to a host of moral and ethical dilemmas and should be defeated.
The panelists were Matthew Kenney, vice president for mission and ethics at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford; Lorraine Zuwallack, a hospice nurse; and Sister Mary Catherine Clark, a social worker and member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Meriden.
All three agreed that the proposed legislation threatens the sanctity and dignity of life. Dr. Kenney, who holds a doctorate in systematic theology, along with a certification in bioethics, said that physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is not so much a legal or legislative issue as it is a human issue.
He said those who advocate for this legislation want to ease the suffering of people who are near the end of their lives. But he contended there are better ways to do this than to give them enough narcotics to take their own lives.
“Physician-assisted suicide short-changes those who are dying and their family members. It makes dying another medical procedure,” Dr. Kenney said. “The U.S. Supreme Court has found that physician-assisted suicide is not a fundamental Constitutional right.”
PAS should not be confused with a patient’s legal right to refuse unwanted medical treatment, he added. Dr. Kenney cited church policy on health care which states that no one must accept treatment that offers no benefit other than prolonging natural death.
Pain and physical suffering are only the fifth most common reason cited by people who contemplate ending their lives, he said. More prevalent reasons include feeling depressed, experiencing a loss of purpose or feeling they are a burden to their family.
There are ways that medical and other professionals can assist people as they face death that will allow them to die with dignity while also experiencing the opportunity for reconciliation with family as well as emotional and spiritual preparation for bodily death.
“We do that by entering into the experience of the dying patient and accompanying them on this journey,” Dr. Kenney said.
PAS is not euthanasia, he explained. What it does is allow a physician to give the patient the means to end his or her own life. But passing such a law creates a “slippery slope” that can lead to euthanasia.
Dr. Kenney further contended that PAS is unethical and violates the Hippocratic oath of physicians.
“The end of curing should never be the end of caring,” he said. “It’s an easier way out for health care providers and for family members,” he said of PAS. “We have to be careful of the slide down this slippery slope.”
A better approach is palliative and hospice care. Palliative care is by definition the treatment of pain, symptoms and stress related to serious illness. Dr. Kenney and the other speakers agreed that palliative and hospice care are greatly underused in Connecticut.
“Good care for the dying is what’s needed, not physician-assisted suicide. We have a long way to go in that area,” Dr. Kenney said.
Using these and other modalities can allow the dying person to achieve a sense of spiritual comfort and peace. The best answer is hard work, compassion and high-quality medical care.
These not only help the patient to prepare for death but his or her family, as well.
“The bottom line is we don’t care for patients by killing them,” he said.
Sister Mary Catherine spoke of the dignity that comes with dying a natural death. She said many people express both fear and the desire for reconciliation as the end nears.
“The dignity that comes with that natural dying process is utterly profound,” she said.
She told the stories of several patients (the names were changed to protect their identities) who experienced the benefits of palliative and hospice care. One was able to reconcile with an estranged daughter. Another was able to understand that taking her life prematurely would only be hurtful to her husband.
She said it’s normal to fear pain, suffering, loss of physical ability and the sense of becoming a family burden. Hospice enables patients to gently face those fears.
“Pain can be dealt with in a very compassionate way,” Sister Mary Catherine said. “The truth behind our fears is really the truth of God.”
End-of-life care, she added, requires time and attention.
Ms. Zuwallack talked about the years she spent as a hospice nurse and the hundreds of people to whom she provided care. She said none of them ever asked her to speed up the dying process.
What the dying need, she said, is not access to suicide. They need pain and symptom control, and spiritual and psychological support; and their families need support.
These can be provided by an interdisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, social workers and other caregivers who all place the patient and family at the center of their efforts.
“We accompany people on their journey. The dying process is a journey. Pain control has come a really long way,” Ms. Zuwallack said.
A significant problem in the eyes of all three panelists is that physicians do not refer patients to hospice early enough for it to be of maximum benefit. They often wait until just a few weeks before death occurs; Zuwallack said six months would be best.
She cited cases where people who entered hospice at that earlier stage actually recovered and were discharged, living another year or even longer.
“We need better hospice care, we need earlier referrals,” she said.
She listed several national organizations that have come out strongly against PAS, including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, National Association for Hospice and Quality care, and the American Geriatric Society, among others.
Ms. Zuwallack said that, if physician-assisted suicide becomes the law in Connecticut, people could become accustomed to physicians killing their patients.
This forum was sponsored by St. Ann’s Defenders of the Faith Ministry as part of its Catholic Church in the Public Square series and co-sponsored by St. Catherine of Siena parish in West Simsbury.