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True Compassion


by Peter Wolfgang

We can defeat efforts to legalize assisted suicide with education and love

Mother and daughter holding hands


The campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide is well-funded and politically connected. It plays on the fears many people have of spending their final years in pain, hooked up to a machine. As defenders of life, we must be prepared to turn back this attack on the elderly and disabled by learning what assisted suicide is and what true death with dignity entails. After all, in due time, each of us must face the emotional issues surrounding death — including that of our parents, family members and ultimately ourselves.

Legalizing assisted suicide licenses doctors to prescribe lethal drugs and grants legal immunity to the people who help a person kill himself. Advocates seek to legalize the procedure by cloaking it in popular notions of personal autonomy — “My Life, My Death, My Choice” — and by spreading the false perception that multitudes of people are dying in intractable pain.

With these talking points, the death lobby moves from state to state. Changing its name from the “Hemlock Society” to the Orwellian “Compassion & Choices,” it has already successfully worked for legal assisted suicide in five states. It is targeting an additional nine states this year, with a special focus on Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico.

Yet my own experience shows that the lobby can be defeated by presenting accurate information to lawmakers and voters. The organization which I run, the Family Institute of Connecticut, is part of a coalition that turned away efforts to legalize assisted suicide in our state for the past four years. Our success in Connecticut provides a useful template for other states. Here are four key points:

Write letters. One of the simplest and best things we all can do is to write to newspapers and elected officials, asking them where they stand on the issue and expressing our own views.

Work across political lines. Our most effective allies are people with disabilities and advocates against elder abuse, including people who may disagree with us on other issues. A broad coalition can make a more persuasive argument to voters and decision-makers that assisted suicide is bad public policy which puts vulnerable populations at risk. The potential victims of assisted suicide can speak with more credibility about the pressure they would face to prematurely end their lives when the “right to die” morphs inevitably into a “duty to die.”

Refute arguments. Don’t let advocates get away with claiming that a person killing himself with the help of others is something other than assisted suicide. Don’t let them say that the issue is “pain” or “choice,” or that there are no abuses in states where assisted suicide has been legalized. Informative resources can be found at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org), under Pro-Life Activities.

Argue against the specific bill. Even legislators or voters who may favor assisted suicide as a concept can be persuaded that a particular bill or ballot initiative would make bad law. Common-sense questions may get people to think twice and have rightly stopped assisted-suicide measures in the past. For example, can one of the witnesses to assisted suicide be a beneficiary to the will? How are the lethal drugs to be disposed of so children don’t harm themselves? What if the drugs don’t work and the person lives or is rendered disabled? Is the doctor prescribing lethal drugs required to have a long-term relationship with the patient or competence in psychology? Are state officials required to lie on the death certificate by describing the manner of death as “natural”?

Most people who opt for assisted suicide where it is legal do not do so because they are in pain, and very few are referred to a psychologist to be treated for possible depression. In our own states, we must support true end-of-life care that includes adequate pain management as well as spiritual and personal accompaniment of ill and elderly persons that is best expressed in love. We must stand against a false compassion that replaces caring with killing.

PETER WOLFGANG is executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut (ctfamily.org) and a member of Fathers Duggan-Zebris Council 13424 in Waterbury, Conn.