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 CNS Story:

BISHOPS-SUICIDE Jun-2-2011 (820 words) With graphic. xxxn

Bishops' document on assisted suicide will be first by full conference

Bishops pray at last fall's meeting in Baltimore. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When the U.S. bishops consider a proposed policy statement on physician-assisted suicide during their mid-June meeting in Seattle, they will be taking on for the first time as a body of bishops one of the most divisive issues in U.S. society today.

A Gallup Poll released May 31 showed that Americans are more closely divided on the issue of physician-assisted suicide than on any other issue, including abortion, out-of-wedlock births, gay and lesbian relations or medical testing on animals.

Asked whether doctor-assisted suicide was morally acceptable or morally wrong, 45 percent said they thought it was acceptable and 48 percent said they believed it to be wrong -- a result that fell within the survey's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the time is right for the statement, titled "To Live Each Day With Dignity."

"After years of relative inaction following legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in 1994, the assisted suicide movement has shown a strong resurgence in activity," said the cardinal in a news release about the proposed statement.

"This renewed effort has led to the passage of an Oregon-style law in Washington by popular referendum in November 2008, a state supreme court decision essentially declaring that assisted suicide is not against public policy in Montana, and concerted efforts to pass legislation in several New England and Western states," Cardinal DiNardo added.

"The church needs to respond in a timely and visible way to this renewed challenge, which will surely be pursued in a number of states in the years to come," he said.

Although the U.S. bishops' Administrative Committee issued a brief "Statement on Euthanasia" in 1991, the bishops have never commented on the topic as a group. The 1991 statement said euthanasia violates divine law, human dignity and basic "American convictions about human rights and equality."

In the works since November, the proposed policy statement aims to counter two arguments of assisted suicide proponents -- that their agenda affirms patients' "choices" and expresses "compassion" for suffering. The assisted suicide movement once known as the Hemlock Society has rebranded itself as an organization called Compassion & Choices.

The document says physician-assisted suicide does not promote compassion because its focus is not on eliminating suffering but on eliminating the patient. True compassion, it states, dedicates itself to meeting patients' needs and presupposes a commitment to their equal worth.

The practice also undermines patients' freedom by putting pressure on them, once society has officially declared the suicides of certain people to be good and acceptable while working to prevent the suicides of others, the statement says.

It argues that assisted suicide would not supplement palliative care but would instead be a poor substitute that can ultimately become an excuse for denying better medical care to seriously ill people, including those who never considered suicide an option.

The draft statement speaks of the hardships and fears of patients facing terminal illness and the importance of life-affirming palliative care. It cites the church's concern for those who are tempted to commit suicide, its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, and the consistency of this stance with the principle of equal and inherent human rights and the ethical principles of the medical profession.

If passed, "To Live Each Day With Dignity" would be paired on a USCCB website with a variety of fact sheets on such issues as the role of depression, views of medical experts, assisted suicide as a threat to good palliative care, lessons from Oregon and Washington state, lessons from the Netherlands and other topics.

It is by happenstance that the document will be debated and voted on in one of the two states where physician-assisted suicide has been approved by voters. The USCCB spring general meetings are held in various U.S. cities, and the locations are set years in advance.

A recent report on physician-assisted suicide in Washington state during 2010 -- the first full year that it had been a legal option -- showed that 68 different doctors wrote prescriptions for lethal drugs for 87 patients. The state Department of Health said at least 51 of those patients took the drugs and died and 15 died without taking the drugs.

Another six of the patients died, but the state did not know whether they had taken the drugs or not; the Department of Health said it did not know if the remaining 15 patients were alive or dead.

In its report covering 10 months of 2009, the state health department said it had lost track of 20 patients who had requested and received prescriptions for lethal drugs. At least 36 people died from physician-assisted suicide in Washington state in 2009.

Since physician-assisted suicide began to take place legally in Oregon in 1998, 525 deaths from assisted suicide have been reported there.


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