Albany, N.Y. — As New York lawmakers began to consider a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide, the New York State Catholic Conference launched a new website "to offer Catholics moral clarity and guidance on the church's teachings regarding end-of-life decision-making."
"Talking about death and dying can be difficult and uncomfortable, yet perhaps no conversations are more profound or necessary for all of us," says the "About" section of the site. "The fact is that most of us will face challenging decisions regarding treatment and care at the end of life, either for ourselves or our family members."
Developed with a grant from Our Sunday Visitor, the site provides links to resources, church teaching, advance directives and a variety of Catholic sources all across the country.
The Catholic church teaches that physician-assisted suicide is immoral and unethical.
In a Feb. 9 interview with the Daily News, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said he and the state's other Catholic bishops have put a high priority on fighting any effort to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Others opposed to assisted suicide include evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and Mormons.
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Under the New York measure, two doctors would have to confirm that a patient is terminally ill and mentally competent. It says two witnesses must attest that the patient's request to be helped to die is voluntary and includes felony penalties for coercing or forging a request. The bill also covers physicians against civil or criminal liability, and participation in a suicide would be voluntary.
Dolan, who is chairman-elect of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee, told the Daily News that "real death with dignity" is seen in the cases of "those who die naturally, who take each day at a time, savoring everything they've got."
In their 2011 statement on assisted suicide, "To Live Each Day With Dignity," the U.S. bishops declared assisted suicide "a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent."
"A choice to take one's life is a supreme contradiction of freedom, a choice to eliminate all choices," they said. "And a society that devalues some people's lives, by hastening and facilitating their deaths, will ultimately lose respect for their other rights and freedoms."
The church promotes palliative care for patients with a terminal disease, including pain control, treatment of depression, among other symptoms, along with spiritual care.
Currently, four states have legalized assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington and Vermont through legislative or voter action; and Montana, through a court ruling.
In addition to New York, lawmakers in Alaska and Colorado have taken up the issue in their legislatures.
In Alaska, a bill to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide has been introduced by three Democrats in the state's House of Representatives. It would permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients for the purpose of suicide. In Colorado, lawmakers Feb. 6 defeated a similar bill in committee.
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who leads 30,000 Catholics across south central Alaska, strongly opposes the measure under consideration in his state, saying it is not about granting people a so-called "right to die," but pushing "doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to kill people."
"In a state with a suicide rate twice the national average, we are now proposing that it should be legal in some instances," Schwietz told the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Anchorage archdiocese. "What kind of message does this send to our youth? In their young minds, they look at life without the practical experience that comes from age.
"They may view their situation as equally depressing or as terminal as someone with an illness," he said. "They see no way out. 'If it's OK for those who have no hope of regaining their health to kill themselves, why can't I?' "
The proposed Alaska bill is part of a national drive by an outside group called Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. At least 14 states are considering similar legislation.
The Colorado proposal would have allowed patients to obtain life-ending drugs if two physicians agreed that they had less than six months to live. After 11 hours of emotional testimony from witnesses on both sides of the issue, the measure was voted down 8-5 by the House Public Health and Human Services Committee.
"I'm here to testify against it based on the fact I think it's bad medicine," said William Bolthouse, a physician from Littleton, Colo., who has practiced medicine since 1987. "It's contrary to our tradition in medicine to preserve life and even help to help [those] dying, but not to end life."
Compassion & Choices, which has its headquarters in the state, was the main backer of the bill, introduced Jan. 27 by Democratic Rep. Lois Court of Denver.
Bolthouse said such a measure "goes against 2,500 years of Hippocratic tradition where we have said it is wrong to kill [patients] and to assist them in killing themselves."
Another witness, Carrie Ann Lucas, who is wheelchair bound, said if the measure became law, "people will die needlessly," She said it would give insurance companies the option to consider death by a doctor's assistance a cheaper option for a patient than medical care.
[Patricia Coll Freeman in Anchorage and Anna Maria Basquez in Denver contributed to this story.]