Spurred by increasing challenges to the state’s current ban on physician-assisted suicide, the New York State Catholic Conference is encouraging Catholic leaders to intensify efforts toward preserving the legislation.
An educational and discussion event, "Help Stop Assisted Suicide: A Training Conference for Catholics" is set for Saturday, Nov. 7, at St. Pius X Church in Loudonville near Albany. The conference is among several initiatives undertaken by the Catholic conference in the past year to raise awareness about physician-assisted suicide — an act that conflicts with Catholic Church teaching about the sanctity of all human life from conception until natural death.
Suzanne Stack, diocesan life-issues coordinator, will attend the Nov. 7 event and said she encourages others from the Diocese of Rochester such as parish ministers, hospital chaplains and hospice workers — "those who run into these issues" — to do the same.
Stack added that local efforts will intensify in the near future, noting that she is planning a series of end-of-life talks clarifying the distinction between the withdrawal of extraordinary medical assistance — which is permitted by the Catholic Church — and taking steps to actively destroy human life, as occurs with physician-assisted suicide.
Meanwhile, the Catholic conference offers detailed information about advocacy efforts on its website (www.nyscatholic.org) Earlier this year the conference also released a new video and website (www.catholicendoflife.com) to educate people on end-of-life matters.
Kathy Gallagher, the Catholic conference’s director of pro-life activities, said the focus on physician-assisted suicide has become vital following the November 2014 death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old brain cancer patient who took a lethal dose of drugs prescribed by a doctor in Oregon.
"Ever since, the groups advocating for physician-assisted suicide have been gearing up in various states, including New York," Gallagher said, noting that the year 2015 has brought three different pieces of state legislation in New York as well as a lawsuit charging that the state law banning assisted suicide is unconstitutional.
"Whereas just a few years ago we were able to push back efforts in this direction rather easily, now the heat has been turned up and the advocacy groups are using sympathetic figures like Brittany Maynard’s mother and husband to advocate for them," Gallagher said.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us," Stack concurred. "Even legislators (in this state) who consider themselves pro-life are not in opposition to physician-assisted suicide."
Gallagher said she is unsure whether any state bill permitting physician-assisted suicide could pass by next year, pointing out that 2016 will be an election year for all state legislators and "traditionally, members stay away from confrontational issues like this one in such a year. But our legislature is quite unpredictable, so we want to be ready."
When California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Oct. 5 permitting physician-assisted suicide — by which doctors prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients to take — his state became the fifth to allow such a practice. Euthanasia, in which doctors themselves directly administer life-ending drugs, remains illegal in all 50 states.
Oregon in 1994 became the first state to legally allow physician-assisted suicide; in the last seven years four states have followed suit: Washington, in 2008; Montana, in 2009; Vermont, in 2013; and now California. Brown’s action is especially significant since California — by far the most heavily populated of the 50 states — has three times the population of Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont combined, according to the 2012 U.S. Census. In addition, Gallagher said, "Many political observers believe that as goes California, so goes New York."
The Catholic conference argues, on the other hand, that legalizing physician-assisted suicide would open the door for abuse, particularly of ill, elderly and disabled patients as well as those who are minorities and/or poor.
"This is an urgent matter," Gallagher said. "The most vulnerable members of our society are the ones at risk when assisted suicide is permitted. These are the people Pope Francis invites us to care for with love and compassion, not abandon to a lethal dose of drugs."
Stack added that church teachings remain unchanged regardless of public sentiment.
"We are not about ethics by majority. Catholic principles are Catholic principles," she stated. "Our morality issues are based on the dignity of the human person."
EDITOR’S NOTE: To register for the Nov. 7 conference near Albany regarding physician-assisted suicide, visit www.nyscatholic.org/registration or call Cindy Miller at 518-434-6195.