Washington — Physician-assisted suicide "violates the Hippocratic oath" and operates under the premise that "some lives are unworthy," said participants in a panel discussion Monday at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The panel, which consisted of speakers from the areas of public policy, medicine and religion, was titled "Living Life to Its Fullest: Supporting the Sick and Elderly in Their Most Vulnerable Hours" and focused on recent public discussions of physician-assisted suicide.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia are currently considering legislation that would allow people facing terminal illness to make the decision to, with the help of their doctor, take their own life, according to a research paper released by the Heritage Foundation.
Much of the recent debate has been generated by the story of Brittany Maynard, an American woman who made national news in November when she opted to end her own life after learning that she had terminal brain cancer. She moved from California to Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
"Killing is incompatible with healing," Ryan Anderson, the William E. Simon fellow at Heritage, said in his opening statement, arguing that the very practice of assisted suicide is contrary to the nature of the Hippocratic oath and the medical profession as a whole.
In an assisted suicide, a person can kill himself with a lethal prescription he has requested from his physician; voluntary euthanasia is when a medical professional does the actual killing of a patient at the patient's request.
According to Anderson's remarks, legalizing physician-assisted suicide across the board would be a "grave mistake," because it would "endanger the weak and vulnerable" while complicating and corrupting the practice of medicine and betraying human dignity.
"Watching people suffer is hard," admitted Dr. Farr A. Curlin, of the Duke University School of Medicine, but such policies allowing suicide would make it difficult, if not impossible, for patients to trust their doctors.
In addition to disrespecting human life and dignity, Anderson also said physician-assisted suicide compromises the family by dissolving "intergenerational responsibilities." To embrace a mentality that views some lives as burdens, he said, would open the door to think of even one's own grandparents as "burdens to be disposed of."
Also on the panel was Sr. Constance Veit, communications director for her religious congregation, the Little Sisters of the Poor. She voiced her concerns about how the practice would affect the elderly and disabled.
Despite popular stories that focus on a decision to end life made by "young, attractive people," Veit warned that physician-assisted suicide "is an issue that is predominantly going to affect the elderly."
Anderson agreed, saying that a "glamorized" understanding of physician-assisted suicide "doesn't tell the whole truth."
The Little Sisters of the Poor is an international order of women religious that provides assistance and housing to "the neediest elderly of every race and religion."
According to Veit, "dying with dignity," even in the face of prolonged suffering, does not require ending a person's life. Rather, the dying process, she said, can be a "moment of grace and a thing of beauty," merely requiring a "caring human and spiritual presence."
Veit recalled a statement issued by 29-year-old Maynard before her suicide that made references to "purposeless, prolonged pain," which Sister Veit said were "terms I have never heard applied to the dying process."
"There is no suffering that is purposeless," she said.
"Suffering exists in the world in order to unleash love," said Veit, quoting a statement made by St. John Paul II.
"To Live Each Day With Dignity," a 2011 statement on physician-assisted suicide from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that while many people fear the dying process, "Catholics should be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives."
The statement urges people to "help build a world in which love is stronger than death."
Last November, several days before Maynard's suicide in Oregon, Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample issued a statement saying that physician-assisted suicide "suggests that there is freedom in being able to choose death, but it fails to recognize the contradiction. Killing oneself eliminates the freedom enjoyed in earthly life. True autonomy and true freedom come only when we accept death as a force beyond our control."
To date, physician-assisted suicide is still legal only in Oregon, Vermont and Washington, by referendum, and in Montana, where a 2009 court ruling legalized it.