Responding to Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are both deliberate attempts to end a patient�s life.  The act is called euthanasia when a person other than the patient directly does something to cause the patient�s death.  If a doctor injects a patient with a drug with the intent of bringing about the patient�s death (perhaps in response to the patient�s request), this is an act of euthanasia.  Assisted suicide takes place when someone provides the patient with the means to take his or her own life, but the patient is the one who directly initiates the action causing death.  If a doctor intentionally prescribes a drug which a patient may take at his or her discretion to bring about death, this is a case of assisted suicide.

In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases involving assisted suicide.  The Court denied that physician assisted suicide is a constitutionally protected right of terminally ill persons and their physicians.  At the same time, the Court did not completely rule out assisted suicide, but put the question of the legalization of assisted suicide into the hands of the states.  Currently, physician assisted suicide is legal in the State of Oregon.

The societal movement towards euthanasia and assisted suicide did not arise in a vacuum.  Some see it as resulting from a failure in our society to provide good care for the dying.

The report Care of the Dying: A Catholic Perspective from the Catholic Health Association of the United States (1993) notes that �many who care for the dying tell us that people are generally not afraid to die.�  Rather, �they fear…the process of dying, especially the dependency, helplessness, and pain that so often accompany terminal illness…�.  The report also notes that �one of the major arguments of euthanasia advocates is that for some people dying is too painful to endure and so bringing about death by lethal injection or assisted suicide is the only merciful way to end the pain and suffering.�

On the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1994) states:

Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way.  Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support, and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death. (no. 60)

This statement sets out the two-pronged response of the Catholic Church to euthanasia and assisted suicide.  On the one hand, the Church unqualifiedly condemns these practices.  On the other hand, the Church urges us to constructively address the needs of dying persons who, out of a sense of desperation, may request euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The Declaration on Euthanasia from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1980)  likewise reminds us of the support needed by persons who are dying:

The pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love.  What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which the sick person can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses.

Thus we should keep in mind that the Church calls us to do two things in responding  to euthanasia and assisted suicide.  We should oppose these practices and the legalization of them.  At the same time, we should commit ourselves to taking active steps to provide good end-of-life care for the dying.

Prepared by Janine Marie Idziak, Ph.D.  Health Care Consultant, Archdiocese of Dubuque, IA
July 2000        This document may be reproduced.