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Catholic ethicists on California’s rise in assisted suicide

Old man death bed, family

Ground Picture | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 09/14/23

While more people than ever are seeking medical assistance in dying, Catholic voices call for compassion and protection for the dignity of human life.

The rate at which Californians are requesting physician-assisted death has increased by 63% since the 2021 End of Life Option Act relaxed rules and eased access to medical assistance in dying in the state. Catholic ethicists continue speaking up about the dangers of such a policy, which has led to the deaths of some 850 individuals in 2022 alone.

Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) comes in two forms, the first being physician-assisted suicide, where lethal drugs are prescribed to a patient who administers the medication themselves. The second is called physician-assisted euthanasia, in which the physician administers the life-ending drugs.

Both of these methods are against the teachings of the Catholic Church, with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops writing that, “Assisted suicide is a deadly mix with our profit-driven health care system.”

Speaking to OSV, Father Tad Pacholczyk, senior ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, warned that all forms of assisted suicide support “the lie that there is such a thing as a life not worth living.”

“By branding the sick or disabled in this way, we soon find ourselves ‘haggling over the price.’ How much disability or sickness should be enough to qualify someone for elimination? How much imperfection is allowable on this slippery slope?” Father Pacholczyk questioned. “Instead of tempting patients to commit suicide, we should extend true compassion and ongoing support to the disabled or the dying.”

In California, the End of Life Option Act was initially introduced in 2016 with restrictions in place that would require a patient to request life-ending medications on two separate occasions, at least 15 days apart. By 2021, however, this stipulation had been shortened to a 48-hour waiting period for the lethal drugs to be prescribed.

The OSV report, published at The Catholic Review, noted that while there were 5,168 people who were legally prescribed lethal medication between 2016 and 2021, only 3,349 (64.8%) actually took the medication and died. This suggests that around 35% of those who were given the life-ending drugs had a change of heart and could not bring themselves to end their own lives.

This may just be a small portion, but William Mattison, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, drew a bit of hope from the figures. He said:

“Despite the tragic rising numbers in California, one observation is the astounding cause for hope that proportionally so few people seek this, even though encouraged by the state and an even smaller percentage actually go through with it. One is too many of course, but there’s a beautiful sign there about human resilience and the desire to live.”

While a surge of private citizens seeking to end their own lives is troubling on its own, the California Catholic Conference (CCC) has raised their own concerns over how MAiD is being used overwhelmingly by “elderly white, college-educated, well-insured men.” As California is a state that is particularly diverse, Kathleen Domingo – executive director of the CCC – said it was a “red flag” that only a narrow portion of the population is represented among MAiD patients, suggesting that these patients may represent a vulnerable community.

Meanwhile, Father Pacholczyk has been championing another vulnerable community: the disabled. He lamented that one’s “quality of life” seems to be the most determining factor when considering a patient’s eligibility for MAiD, reiterating that there is no such thing as a life not worth living.

“Members of the disabled community see the handwriting on the wall, and sense the escalating pressure to make an early exit,” he explained. “The smoke signals emanating from long-respected institutions like professional medical societies, health care systems, insurance companies and the courts suggest that the evening twilight is poised to give way to the darkness.”

There are currently nine US states with Medical Assistance in Dying laws that permit physician-assisted suicide, with three more considering bills that would legalize the practice. Overall, there are 40 states with some form of stipulation that allows for physician-assisted suicide. It is estimated that 200 million people worldwide live in jurisdictions with some form of MAiD available.

Read the full OSV report here.

BioethicsCatholicMedicineUnited States
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