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    Standing Firm Before a Slippery Slope

    Religious leaders, doctors and disability advocates speak out against physician-assisted suicide

    by Peter Wolfgang 1/1/2020
    Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

    Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in nine states and Washington, D.C. Maine is the most recent state to allow it, with the law going into effect Jan. 1. Advocates say such laws show compassion for the dying. In reality, vulnerable populations are facing greater pressure to end their lives. The more assisted suicide is accepted, the more “the right to die” will become, for many, a duty to die.

    Despite the legal and cultural forces promoting acceptance of assisted suicide, the Catholic Church is holding fast to the dignity of the human person and the integrity of medicine. And the Church is not alone in condemning these laws; professional medical associations, other religious leaders and advocates for people with disabilities — including the Knights of Columbus — have all vocally opposed physician-assisted suicide in recent months.

    Many professional medical organizations, including the World Medical Association and American Medical Association, oppose the killing of the terminally ill or those thought to be terminally ill. On Oct. 26, the WMA reaffirmed its long-held stance on physician-assisted suicide at its 70th general assembly: “The WMA reiterates its strong commitment to the principles of medical ethics and that utmost respect has to be maintained for human life. Therefore, the WMA is firmly opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”

    The declaration went on to address physicians’ conscience rights: “No physician should be forced to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide, nor should any physician be obliged to make referral decisions to this end.”

    Two days later at the Vatican, representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox churches issued a joint statement with Jewish and Muslim leaders on “matters concerning the end of life.” While recognizing the difficult dilemmas of end-of-life decisions, the statement was unequivocal: “Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong and should be forbidden with no exceptions.”

    These two declarations came a couple of weeks after the National Council on Disability underscored the harmful effects of assisted suicide laws on people with disabilities.

    In a report titled “The Dangers of Assisted Suicide Laws,” the independent U.S. federal agency warned that “if assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives, particularly those of people with disabilities, will be ended without their fully informed and free consent, through mistakes, abuse, insufficient knowledge and the unjust lack of better options.”

    Following the report’s release Oct. 9, NCD Chairman Neil Romano stated, “Assisted suicide laws are premised on the notion of additional choice for people at the end of their lives, however in practice, they often remove choices when the lowcost option is ending one’s life.”

    Significantly, the study found that unmet service and support needs — not pain — is the primary motivator of assisted suicide.

    The agency’s report was particularly critical of the failure of purported safeguards. For example, it noted that insurers have denied treatment to patients but offered to subsidize lethal drugs instead — “potentially leading patients to hasten their own deaths.”

    In addition to noting the effects of misdiagnoses and “financial and emotional pressures” on patient choice, the report also analyzed how often doctors referred patients seeking suicide for a psychological evaluation. Though depression often drives these requests, only 3.5% of those who reportedly died under Oregon’s assisted suicide law in 2017 were referred for an evaluation before a prescription for lethal drugs was written. The next year, only 1.8% were referred.

    Protecting the weakest and most vulnerable among us defines who we are as Catholics and as Knights of Columbus. We have historically served and defended the poor, persons with disabilities and the sanctity of life, all of which are threatened by the effort to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia.

    In response, we must educate our neighbors and policymakers. We must work across political lines with people who understand that assisted suicide is bad public policy that puts vulnerable populations at risk.

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



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