Sadly, on May 20, 2012, Vermont became the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill individuals—but the first in which it was by passage of legislation. In Oregon and Washington, assisted suicide was approved through public initiatives, and in Montana by judicial decree.
California has successfully rebuffed similar efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide. In 1992, Proposition 161 failed 54-46, and then in 1999, 2006 and 2008, legislative attempts also failed. However, the sponsors of the policy, Compassion & Choices, continue to advocate for it.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued this statement following the Vermont decision:
“I echo Bishop Matano of Burlington in calling this a tragic moment for Vermont. It is also a sign of an alarming trend nationwide. In the three states where physician-assisted suicide is now legal, doctors are called upon to destroy life, rather than to save life and provide much-needed comfort in times of pain and distress…The ‘slippery slope’ that critics of the euthanasia agenda have long warned against is in full view here. I invite Catholics and all people of good will to fight the future passage of such laws, which offend human dignity and undermine true respect and care for people with serious illness.”
Dr. H. Rex Greene, a non-religious oncologist who joined the efforts of the Catholic bishops in rebuffing the California’s legislative attempts, recently wrote:
“Based on Oregon's experience those who choose physician-assisted suicide (PAS) are mainly cancer patients who have no pain and no disability. Their reasons for taking an overdose of pentobarbital are fears of what might happen in the future—mainly the fear of ‘becoming a burden.’ This is subtle coercion… An abundance of medical studies indicate that depression or a demoralization syndrome are the cause of seeking hastened death--with or without a terminal disease… Moreover, prognostication is highly inaccurate. In most fatal diseases six months before death the patients look and feel healthy… PAS is an incompetent medical response to psychological distress.”
In 1999, the California bishops, alarmed at the state’s attempts to legalize PAS, launched an educational project, Embracing Our Dying, in order to convey both Church teaching and counsel for the dying and their families. The bishops’ rationale is encapsulated in the opening comment on the webpage: “If those who are dying are embraced by their family and their community, they will not seek death, but will live their last days well, and then accept death when it comes.” The resources prepared for that project are available on the California Catholic Conference website.
In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on assisted suicide, To Live Each Day with Dignity. The full text, as well as information on the Catholic Church’s advocacy on end-of life issues, is available online.
The California Catholic Conference continues to monitor the California legislature for any effort to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The proponents of the concept would very much like to have a major trend-setting state such as California allow PAS.