Virginia bishops warn of ‘deadly harm’ in new assisted suicide bill — By: Catholic News Agency

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond. / Credit: Katie Yoder/CNA and photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Washington

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Feb 7, 2024 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

The bishops of Virginia condemned a bill advancing in the state Legislature that could legalize assisted suicide, warning that it “makes the most vulnerable even more vulnerable” and puts them at risk of “deadly harm.”

The statement, from Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, called Virginia’s “Death with Dignity” bill being considered by the state Legislature a “lethal measure” that could harm many Virginians.

“Legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide is moving rapidly in this year’s Virginia General Assembly session. The Senate and House have both taken steps to advance this lethal measure,” the bishops said, noting that one or both of Virginia’s legislative chambers could advance the bill in the next week.

“We are alarmed and deeply saddened by this development,” the bishops said. “At this critical moment, we implore the faithful across our two dioceses: Please contact your state senator and delegate. Urge them to reject assisted suicide legislation.”

What is assisted suicide?

Assisted suicide, the practice by which a physician or other person assists a patient in taking his or her own life, is currently legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

Though still only legal in a minority of states, several bishops have been raising the alarm on a growing push to legalize assisted suicide in more states across the nation.

“Human life is sacred and must never be abandoned or discarded,” the Virginia bishops said in their statement.

While stating that “every suicide is a tragedy,” they said that “assisted suicide facilitates tragedies and makes the most vulnerable even more vulnerable.”

“Legalizing it would place the lives of people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, the elderly, and those unable to afford health care — among others — at heightened risk of deadly harm,” Burbidge and Knestout said.

“This troubling reality has already taken root” in the states that have legalized assisted suicide, they said.

The bishops said in their statement that insurance companies in some states have denied coverage for cancer treatment and other procedures but offered to pay for suicide drugs instead. This is a claim that has been made by several patient advocacy groups such as the National Council on Disability and the Patients’ Rights Action Fund as well as a number of physicians and patients including a doctor in Nevada and a patient in California.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the bishops said that “only 3.3% of the patients who died by assisted suicide since its legalization in 1998 were referred for psychiatric evaluation.” A study published in October 2023 in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ backs the bishops’ claim, putting psychiatric assessments for assisted suicide patients in Oregon as low as 1%.

“People facing the end of life are in great need and must be accompanied with great care and attentiveness,” Burbidge and Knestout said. “To address each of their needs and alleviate their suffering, patients deserve high quality medical, palliative, and hospice care — not suicide drugs.”

Assisted suicide in the U.S.

Besides the District of Columbia, the states where assisted suicide is legal are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington.

The Virginia bill is one of several assisted suicide bills currently being advanced by state legislatures. Lawmakers in Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts are also considering similar bills to legalize the practice of physician-assisted suicide under the name of “death with dignity” or “medical assistance in dying” (MAID).

Lucia Silecchia, a law professor specializing in Catholic social thought and a fellow at The Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told CNA that “steady trends” in the U.S. and other nations have been to “ever expand such statutes.”

“In the United States, we have seen yearly increases in the number of patients opting for assisted suicide, the shortening or waiving of waiting periods, and the lifting of residency requirements,” she said. 

Silecchia pointed out that “the sad irony” of the four states advancing new assisted suicide bills is that these states have “some of the most renowned medical facilities in the nation and in the world.”   

“Their legislatures should be devoting their attention and resources to policies that will provide better medical care to alleviate suffering rather than moving toward this dangerous path,” Silecchia said. “For the individual who suffers, this sends a message that ending life rather than caring for it is now appropriate.”

According to Silecchia: “All people of goodwill should be concerned about these statutes because they undermine the dignity of vulnerable human life.” 

“The statutes offer little by way of safeguards,” she explained. “For example, there are typically no requirements that there be a witness at the time the drugs are ingested. Thus, there is opportunity for coercive pressure to go undetected. There is very little control over what happens with unused medications and no requirements that family members be notified. Evidence also indicates that prescribing physicians are frequently those who have had no long-term relationship with the patient. Thus, they can offer no meaningful insight into the psychological well-being of those who pursue this path.” 

What can Catholics do? 

Despite the dangers, Silecchia said that there is much Catholics can do to push back against the trend of expanding assisted suicide in the U.S.

On the legislative level, she said that it is important for Catholics to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities as well to advocate for access to medical care for the dying, incentives for interested people to enter the caring professions, and greater support for suicide prevention initiatives. 

Catholics can advocate for the vulnerable by signing petitions such as the one organized by the Virginia bishops. Virginians can sign the petition to stop the assisted suicide bill from being passed by clicking here

Laws, however, are only part of the battle, and Catholic action is also needed on the cultural front as well, Silecchia said. 

She cited statistics taken by Oregon’s Public Health Division in 2022 that found the most cited reasons for persons opting for assisted suicide in the state were fear of being “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable,” losing autonomy, losing dignity, and becoming a burden. 

“What this suggests, culturally, is the urgent need to reconsider how we accompany those who are facing death, how human autonomy may be over-prioritized, and the way in which — intended or not — we have come to perceive that the measure of dignity and worth lies in what a person is capable of doing,” she said. 

“Finding ways to support those who are dying and their loved ones within our extended families, parishes, and communities is critical, particularly as families grow smaller and more far-flung, leaving many to fear dying isolated and alone.”

“It is also important,” Silecchia went on, “to offer education about end-of-life ethics and the distinctions between ordinary care, extraordinary care, hospice, palliative care, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.” 

Though she said that the Church’s teachings on these matters “are very deep and well-developed,” she noted they are often misunderstood, inadequately conveyed, or consulted “only in times of crisis when decisions are rushed.” 

Given the rise of assisted suicide and even euthanasia in certain parts of the country and world, Silecchia said that a “comprehensive cultural discussion on this teaching is important for our times.” 

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