Being a priest and a spiritual director, I have had the opportunity to accompany many of you through the full spectrum of life’s joys and sorrows, both the profound and mundane: births and baptisms, job losses, sickness, addictions, marriages, and the list goes on and on. While I consider it a deep honor to be entrusted with all of these events, one of the things I encounter with much more frequently than the average person is watching friends enter into terminal illness, the circumstances leading up to death, and saying goodbye to people who are dying.
As Catholics, we know that life is sacred from natural conception to natural death. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is increasingly focused inward, more focused on satisfying the demands of “me”, most often at the expense of the vulnerable. At this moment, our own state of Maryland is dealing with a specific example of this, as the Maryland General Assembly considers a proposition to legalize physician assisted suicide. This bill is very dangerous “me”-focused legislation that will ultimately impact all of us if it passes, but especially the sick, the disabled, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.
Proponents refer to this initiative as “Death with Dignity”, or “End-of-Life Options”, and they argue that it will allow doctors to prescribe a lethal prescription to any requesting competent adult with a terminal diagnosis that is capable of self-administering the prescription. Many supporters cite the death experiences of family members and friends as their desire to have this “option”. In some cases, they describe witnessing instances of prolonged pain and suffering; in others they describe watching loved ones become physically incapacitated, lose the ability to participate in life in ways they previously did, and falling into dependency on others. Proponents argue they want the choice to avoid these painful and difficult circumstances, and that legalizing lethal medication won’t affect anyone besides Marylanders who choose to take it.
Let me be clear on this: through our faith, we know that physician assisted suicide is NOT dignified because it actively ends a human life. Our faith also informs us that there are morally acceptable means of allowing people to enter death without prolonged suffering or extensive medical interventions.
With those two points being said, I’d like to focus on this issue from the perspective of people who are not Catholic, or Christian, or of any faith at all. Even from this perspective, it should be clear that this legislation WILL absolutely affect vulnerable populations in a negative way… and that alone should be reason enough to not pass this dangerous bill.
It will negatively affect the sick and the disabled by sending the message that just because you’re physically incapacitated, or near death, that your life isn’t worth living. It will negatively affect the elderly because (although the bill claims to have safeguards) there’s no way to prevent coercion; we all know of an elderly friend or family member that has been very dependent on others for making health decisions. It will set a negative precedent for those with suicidal tendencies by legislating the option to choose to end your life; even though the bill doesn’t allow people to access lethal medication based on the premise of depression alone, passing it would send the message that ending your life can be morally acceptable. It will negatively affect minority communities that already experience a disparity in health care access, quality, education on palliative care, hospice care, advanced directives, and other non-suicidal options. I encourage you to take a look at the infographic enclosed in the bulletin for more specifics on why this bill is dangerous for all Marylanders. Indeed, through my own experiences of accompanying souls through the dying process, I can attest that legalization of physician assisted suicide would only serve to make the vulnerable more susceptible than what they already are.
As Christians, we are called to be light in a dark and broken world: as far as Maryland’s physician assisted suicide initiative goes, I encourage you to do so, first, by prayer: pray for God’s grace to work in our society, for those dominated by a “me”-focused perspective; for the sick, the elderly, those who face death, and for their families; for the depressed and lonely, and those with suicidal tendencies; for those who have difficulty accessing healthcare and the disabled; for those who work in politics, and in the medical and pharmaceutical professions, and their patients.
Second, I encourage you to take practical steps against this legislation by contacting your legislator: you can go to the website below or call 301-858-3000 to find your legislators’ contact information. (Now is particularly ripe time to do so, as the bill will have its second committee hearing this Tuesday)!
Third, I encourage you to sign up and attend the Catholics in Annapolis event THIS THURSDAY; this event brings together Catholics from across the State to voice concerns on everything from this issue, to Catholic schools, to immigration and social justice issues. Southern Maryland participation is specifically needed at this event. (You can see the enclosed flyer for instructions).
I apologize that this Pastor’s Keyboard has been so long! This is an important topic that deserves our attention!
Your Brother and Father in Christ,