Archdiocese taking the lead in the fight against assisted-suicide

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By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

BOSTON — With a citizen-petitioned bill known as the Death with Dignity Act potentially headed for Massachusetts ballots later this year, a campaign is already in full swing in the Archdiocese of Boston to educate Catholics that physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are never viable options.

The campaign entitled “Suicide is Always a Tragedy” was inspired by Cardinal Séan P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., and has been spearheaded by Janet Benestad, secretary of Faith Formation and Evangelization for the archdiocese.

“Back in the fall Cardinal O’Malley gave two homilies on the subject — one at the Red Mass for lawyers, the other at the White Mass for nurses,” Benestad said. “He spoke against assisted suicide and appointed two steering committees in the archdiocese — one to address the issue at the statewide level, working with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the bishops in Massachusetts; and the other, an archdiocesan steering committee, and I was made the head of that committee.”

Benestad said her committee decided to devise an early educational campaign to inform people about the Church’s official teachings regarding assisted suicide, creating brochures and pew cards that could be distributed at all parishes and setting up a website dedicated to the issue.

“The website codified with the material that was handed out to parishes here in the archdiocese on February 11 and 12 — the World Day of the Sick and the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes,” Benestad said. “The idea here was to provide as much education as we could in a simple way on the question of assisted suicide. We hope to educate parishes, pastors, teachers, chaplains — anyone who would have to speak on this issue or works in the health-related field.”

Supporters of the Death with Dignity Act garnered more than 86,000 certified signatures last December, but the Massachusetts state legislature has until May to choose whether or not to act on the proposal before it would appear on the ballot later this year.

Proponents say the measure would give patients greater peace of mind, choice and control in their final days of life. The legislation permits individuals who are given six months or fewer to live to receive life-ending drugs. The law would require that two doctors verify the mental competence of patients and that there be a 15-day waiting period between the request for and writing of the prescription.

But Cardinal O’Malley in his Red Mass homily last September at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross called the initiative petition “an attempt to undermine the sacredness of human life that demands an energetic response from Catholics and other citizens of good will.”

The cardinal acknowledged the fears that many have today of a “protracted period of decline at the end of life,” in which they may experience pain, loss of control, dementia, abandonment, and becoming a burden on others. But then he declared, “We as a society will be judged by how we respond to these fears.” The way to respond to the fear is not to allow those with the fears to kill themselves, but to respond to them with greater attention, love and care.

“Suicide is a tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent,” he said.

At their June 2011 meeting, the bishops of the United States also approved and published a clear statement against physician-assisted suicide entitled, “To Live Each Day with Dignity.”

In it, the bishops observed that many people today fear the dying process and “being kept alive past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others.”

“Taking life in the name of compassion,” they stated, “also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally-ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy. Once they convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion.”

Benestad admitted there’s a lot of confusion among Catholics about end-of-life treatment options, and she hopes the Suicide is Always a Tragedy campaign will send a clear message about the Church’s teachings.

“Most Catholics believe that you cannot refuse treatment even if it’s burdensome or costly or excessive,” she said. “The fact of the matter is you can refuse treatment. For example, if you are an elderly person who has been diagnosed with cancer, you can refuse chemotherapy if you feel it’s going to be excessively burdensome or painful or that it’s futile. The ethical and religious directives of the Church are very clear about that.

“The second area of confusion among Catholics is that you can’t have enough pain medication at the end of life; but you can have whatever level of morphine you need to control the pain, even if that level of treatment hastens death. Those two things are very important to clear up for Catholics as they deal with decisions at the end of life.”

But the one thing Benestad said is not condoned by the Catholic Church is aiding someone in what has been callously labeled as “mercy killing.”

“That’s not a way to treat someone who is in the late stages of life or is dying,” she said. “We care for the sick and dying, we don’t kill them.”

With the Death with Dignity Act looming on the horizon and given the current environment where assisted-suicide is being encouraged, Benestad said it’s vitally important for Catholics to make sure they appoint a health care proxy who is clearly aware of their intentions.

“Catholics have to think seriously about who they want to have making those decisions for them if they’re not able to themselves,” she said. “It is very important for Catholics to make clear to people making those decisions that assisted suicide is not an option for them. It’s not morally acceptable to them.”

For more information about the Suicide is Always a Tragedy campaign, visit

© 2014 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, Mass.