ANAHEIM—A group of medical professionals and Catholic clerics, speaking to an audience of nearly 500 at Servite High school, examined in depth one of the most contentious questions currently facing state lawmakers—physician assisted suicide—and called for the defeat of a proposed law that would legalize the practice in California.
The presentations were part of an April 11 conference titled “Dignity and Courage at the End of Life: A Compassionate and Faith-Filled Response to the Push for Assisted Suicide.” The event was a comprehensive response to SB 128, the so-called “End of Life Option Act” that is currently under scrutiny by the State Legislature. The bill would allow California physicians to prescribe lethal drugs on request to patients with terminal illnesses.
Calling the push for the bill’s defeat a “bond of common concern for the human person,” Bishop Kevin Vann called on the audience to be “a voice for the voiceless” in advocating compassionate end-of-life care for those with limited resources or means.
Much of the content of the speakers’ presentations were concerned with debunking misconceptions surrounding such end-of-life issues as pain management, depression and the intrinsic worth and dignity of individuals, as well as illuminating the numerous potential problems—political, social, economic, moral and ethical—raised by the possibility of legal physician-assisted suicide.
Advocating compassionate hospice care, Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., the president of The Magis Institute, said that 90 percent of requests for assisted suicide are reversed “if pain and depression can be adequately treated. And hospice is really very good at it. People don’t want to die [by suicide], and this is what we’ve got to defend.”
Acceptance of assisted suicide, said Father Robert, puts “pressure on the disabled and vulnerable” and moves society “toward a culture of death. This is really a disaster area. Dealing with challenge bravely is a part of our lives.”
Many current approaches to end-of-life issues brand disability or dependence as undesirable, “that if you need assistance there’s something wrong with you,” said Father Robert. “We’re moving toward an indignity of assistance. But there’s nothing wrong with needing people.”
Passage of SB 128, said Father Robert, would initiate a “slippery slope” that would further legitimize the idea of suicide. “What becomes legal becomes socially acceptable and soon becomes moral,” he said. “This is crazy. We will undermine not just the sacredness of life, but the goodness of life. We will become nothing more than the stoic Roman culture that imploded under its own cruelty. This is not just a darkening of the culture, but a darkening of the souls within it.”
The true duty of those caring for terminal patients, according to Catholic teaching, is not to unnecessarily prolong life by artificial means, nor to cut it short by assisted suicide, but to “soothe suffering,” said Father Joseph Nguyen, the lead chaplain at UCI Medical Center. “Palliative care is the proper Christian response to suffering,” he said. “Our first duty is to alleviate pain.”
Noting that suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons in their teens and 20s and the tenth leading cause for adults, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, the director of the Program in Medical Ethics at UCI, asserted that a request for physician-assisted suicide “is almost always a cry for help. It’s not a desire to die. These people don’t want to die. They want to escape what they see as intolerable suffering.” However, he added, SB 128 would weaken efforts at suicide prevention.
Worse, he said, the law would “lead to the medical abandonment of vulnerable individuals” such as the poor, the disabled, the suggestible, the depressed or those pressured by family and others. In some documented cases, he said, insurance companies have shown a willingness to pay for lethal drugs to be used for suicide, but not for more compassionate—and more expensive—end-of-life medical treatment. This practice, he said, “is against medical ethics and contradicts our role as healers. We must communicate to each and every patient: You are not a burden.”
Dr. Vincent Nguyen continued to emphasize the significance of the individual patient in his presentation about the state of palliative care. Nguyen, a palliative care specialist who has treated, by his estimation, more than 20,000 patients over two decades, said that terminally ill patients often fear becoming a burden to their families, suffering a loss of autonomy and being unable to do the things they once enjoyed, in addition to the fear of suffering—real or imagined—that accompanies death. These fears, he added, can create a desire for more control, and assisted suicide can become a more attractive idea as a result.
Palliative care, particularly in a hospice environment, he says, “is about life. It’s about how to help the person live with whatever time they have left and giving them the best life possible.” Physicians practicing palliative care “help patients to discover the meaning and the purpose of life.”
Assisted suicide, said Nguyen, “is fundamentally incompatible and conflicts with the physician’s obligation” to alleviate pain and treat the whole patient in a comprehensive and compassionate manner.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. “We have the technology to help you.”
Watch the entire conference below