Catholic World News

US bishops approve statement on physician-assisted suicide

June 17, 2011

By a vote of 191-1, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved “To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide” at its June meeting in Seattle. (The bishops' conference did not release the name of the lone bishop who vote against the release of the statement.)

In the statement’s first section (“A Renewed Threat to Human Dignity”), the bishops discuss the resurgence of the assisted-suicide movement in recent years. In the next section (“The Illusion of Freedom”), they offer three arguments against the notion that “the drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide really enhance[s] choices or freedom for people with serious health conditions.”

First, suicidal persons are typically not truly free; rather, they “need help to be freed from their suicidal thoughts through counseling and support and, when necessary and helpful, medication … They need care and protection. To offer them lethal drugs is a victory not for freedom but for the worst form of neglect.”

Second, “legalization proposals generally leave in place the laws against assisting most people to commit suicide, but they define a class of people whose suicides may be facilitated rather than prevented. That class typically includes people expected to live less than six months … By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message—before anyone signs a form to accept this alleged benefit—that they may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy.”

Third, the nation’s founders viewed life as an inalienable right. “As Christians we go even further: Life is our first gift from an infinitely loving Creator,” The bishops add:

It is the most fundamental element of our God-given human dignity. Moreover, by assuming and sharing our human nature, the Son of God has more fully revealed and enhanced the sacred character of each human life. Therefore one cannot uphold human freedom and dignity by devaluing human life. A choice to take one’s life is a supreme contradiction of freedom, a choice to eliminate all choices. And a society that devalues some people’s lives, by hastening and facilitating their deaths, will ultimately lose respect for their other rights and freedoms.

In the statement’s third section (“A False Compassion”), the bishops discuss the ways in which the legalization of physician-assisted suicide can increase the suffering of the terminally ill, whether through the unwillingness of doctors to provide appropriate palliative care or the unwillingness of insurers and government programs to pay for care that extends life. “The realization that others—or society as a whole—may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems” also leads to patients’ mental suffering.

In “A Better Way” (the statement’s fourth section), the bishops call upon society “to surround patients with love, support, and companionship” and offer appropriate palliative care. “As Christians we believe that even suffering itself need not be meaningless—for as Pope John Paul II showed during his final illness, suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of others.”

“Catholics should be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives,” the statement concludes. “As disciples of one who is Lord of the living, we need to be messengers of the Gospel of Life. We should join with other concerned Americans, including disability rights advocates, charitable organizations, and members of the healing professions, to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities and promote life-affirming solutions for their problems and hardships. We should ensure that the families of people with chronic or terminal illness will advocate for the rights of their loved ones, and will never feel they have been left alone in caring for their needs.”


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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 17, 2011 5:32 PM ET USA

    The number was 191 to 1, making me wonder if one bishop didn't know that he was voting against this statement, or if he was a real solo flier. Either way, Houston, we have a problem.

  • Posted by: rpp - Jun. 17, 2011 4:14 PM ET USA

    God bless the 19 bishops for this unequivocal statement. But I am with Hal, who is the one who voted against? Do we know why?

  • Posted by: Hal - Jun. 17, 2011 11:22 AM ET USA

    Who, pray tell, voted against?