College of Fellows
"Boston's Cardinal Sean O' Malley Provides Leadership on Life" by Ray Flynn
Boston's Cardinal Sean O' Malley Provides Leadership on Life
by DSPT Fellow Ray Flynn
Pope John Paul II spent his whole life defending the values of every person - but never more so than during his own illness and death. I had the privilege of being a witness to much of his remarkable career. I met him almost ten years before he was elected Pope and was at the Vatican when he died. During his long and courageous sickness, he availed himself of all appropriate medical arrangements. When further extraordinary or disproportionate means would not have helped him, he went home to the Vatican, still with proportionate help like a breathing tube, and died in peace. Pope John Paul's final words were, “Let me go to my father's house." As Catholics, we all hope to be able to emulate the Pope's redemptive suffering and embrace of God's will.
It is interesting that a recent poll found that people with religious faith are more likely to seek aggressive treatment at the end of life – perhaps because they view this life as a good gift from God and they understand redemptive suffering. Our hope is to spend our final days in peace and comfort, surrounded by loved ones – to live with dignity until we die.
In Massachusetts on November 6th, we have a ballot question, “Death with Dignity”, which would legalize and normalize doctor-prescribed suicide. Most people agree that every suicide is a tragedy, yet doctor-prescribed suicide is moving forward.
The moving force behind these efforts is the bogus self-proclaimed group, “Compassion and Choices”, formerly the Hemlock Society. At a conference, C&C announced that they plan to spend eight to nine million dollars on media in Massachusetts.
We Catholics have always worked hard to protect innocent life from the moment of conception until natural death and to help all people live a healthy and happy life. We are living in tough times, but suicide is not the answer. Hope, love and support are. The supporters of DPS and their media allies do not use the word “suicide." They prefer “death with dignity”, “aid in dying”, “assisted dying”. But it is the sick, elderly, and disabled, on whom we should be lavishing the most care.
People are afraid of suffering themselves and they don't want to see others suffer. They think, “I wouldn't want to live like that." They may get tired of all the attention and constant care necessary. But we are fortunate to live in a time when medicine can alleviate most pain and give people the dignified care as they continue to live. People who request death are vulnerable. They need care and protection. To offer them lethal drugs is medical abandonment. The choice to take one's life is a supreme contradiction of freedom, a choice to eliminate all choices.
This agenda actually risks adding to the suffering of seriously ill people. Their worst suffering is often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The realization that others—or society as a whole—may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify this kind of suffering.
Even health care providers' ability and willingness to provide palliative care such as effective pain management can be undermined by authorizing assisted suicide. Studies indicate that untreated pain among terminally ill patients may increase and development of hospice care can stagnate after assisted suicide is legalized. Government programs and private insurers may even limit support for care that could extend life, while emphasizing the “cost-effective” solution of a doctor-prescribed death. The reason for such trends is easy to understand. Why would medical professionals spend a lifetime developing the empathy and skills needed for the difficult but important task of providing optimum care, once society has authorized a “solution” for suffering patients that requires no skill at all? Once some people have become candidates for the inexpensive treatment of assisted suicide, public and private payers for health coverage also find it easy to direct life-affirming resources.
The ballot question in Massachusetts is essentially the same as the wording in Oregon and Washington State. Reporting in those states is sketchy at best. There are no funds and no authority to follow up. Washington State's law is quite recent, so what information there is comes from Oregon.
In Oregon, Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup were denied prescriptions for life-extending drugs. In the denial letters Oregon Medicaid noted that assisted suicide was a covered "treatment." Is it not possible that, with all the talk of austerity and of the high medical costs incurred in the last year of life, financial pressures might distort treatment decisions in favor of the cheap alternative of assisted suicide?
Michael Freeland had no trouble obtaining the lethal drugs despite a 43-year history of severe depression and suicide attempts; the prescribing doctor said he didn't think that a psychiatric consultation was "necessary." Oregon's statistics for the last four years show that only 2% of patients were referred for a psychological evaluation or counseling, while experts say that most doctors are just not capable of identifying psychological problems during visits.
Wendy Melcher died in 2005 after two Oregon nurses gave her a lethal overdose. They said Melcher had asked for it, but administered the drugs without her doctor's knowledge – in clear violation of the law. No criminal charges were filed. Annie O. Jones, John Avery and three other patients were also overdosed by nurses, none of whom were prosecuted.
“Safeguards” in the Oregon and Washington laws, identical to those proposed in Massachusetts, are hollow. Under the law, an heir can be one of the witnesses to the request for assisted suicide, a practice universally forbidden at the signing of a will. No independent witness is required to verify self-administration and otherwise protect the safety of the person.
No safeguard in the world can protect someone from a misdiagnosis or inaccurate terminal diagnosis. Last October, Oregonian Jeanette Hall wrote in the Boston Globe that she had voted for the law. Later she received a terminal diagnosis and went to her doctor for a suicide prescription. "I didn't want to suffer," she wrote. After many visits, her oncologist, Dr. Kenneth Stevens persuaded her to choose treatment instead of suicide. That was a dozen years ago! Jeanette now works actively against DPS laws in other states. Dr. Stevens spoke last week in Massachusetts. He said since the passage of the law, people have been denied treatment from Medicaid because it was too expensive.
Individual choice becomes a travesty when based on inaccurate information. Months and years of people's lives will be lost if this bill passes, and vulnerable people will be put at risk.
The ballot question committee, Massachusetts Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide: No On 2, of which I am a member, is made up of people of all faiths or no faith. They have developed these arguments which resonate with the general public:
Eligibility is based on a six-month life expectancy. But doctors agree these estimates are often wrong. Individuals outlive their prognoses by months or even years. Question 2 will lead people to give up on treatment and lose good years of their lives.
Patients are not required to see a psychiatrist or counselor before obtaining the lethal drug—fewer than 2% have been referred for psychiatric evaluation in Oregon. This means ill people with treatable depression can get a life-ending prescription, rather than effective psychological care.
The supposed safeguards are hollow. And nothing in Question 2 will protect patients when there are pressures, whether financial or emotional, which distort patient choice.
Question 2 is a recipe for elder abuse. Key provisions allow an heir or abusive caregiver to serve as a witness to help sign the patient up for the lethal drugs, and no witnesses are required when the drugs are taken.
We are told that in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, the data shows zero problems. But actually, Oregon's annual reports tell us very little. Doctors who fail to make required reports, face no penalty. The State does not talk to doctors who denied a request to prescribe lethal drugs, to find out why. Just as in Oregon, Question 2 fails to give Massachusetts any resources or even the authority to investigate violations or provide oversight.
We in Massachusetts are extremely concerned that, if doctor-prescribed suicide passes here, it will spread rapidly throughout the North East and then to the rest of the country. I urge you to visit the organization's website and to work so that Question 2 will be defeated on November 6th.
Don't expect weak kneed politicians, the national media or even "fair weather Catholics” to provide the political or moral leadership that John Paul II did. But sometimes we have to have the courage to stand up for what we believe in and do what is right.
We are fortunate in Boston to have Cardinal Sean O' Malley providing the extraordinary public and moral leadership on this "life" issue. We must listen to his words and take public action ourselves. Vote No on question 2.
Raymond L. Flynn is the former U.S. Ambassador to The Vatican and Mayor of Boston.