On Thursday the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will release a new document that calls for the end of legal aid in dying. To Live Each Day with Dignity marks a nationwide effort by the Roman Catholic Church to influence how patients will be cared for at the end of their lives. Citing a Death with Dignity bill that passed in Washington in 2008, a ruling protecting the right to aid in dying by the Montana supreme court in 2009 and a spate of state initiatives, a June 1 press release states, “The Church needs to respond in a timely and visible way to this renewed challenge, which will surely be pursued in a number of states in the years to come.”
Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the nation’s largest aid in dying advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, wrote in an e-mail to supporters last week, “What alarms us is their determination to use their standing to undermine end-of-life choice and chastise everyone—Catholic or otherwise—who believes in or practices it.” Though the Catholic Church’s position is not new—opposition to “euthanasia” has been a cornerstone of the “prolife” platform for decades—the elevation of end-of-life issues to the top of the bishops’ agenda this week is affirmation of their commitment to this aspect of healthcare. And it’s not hard to imagine that the USCCB is specifically rebuking Compassion & Choices for their successes: the press release highlights true compassion and choice; To Live Each Day will be released at the USCCB’s Spring General Assembly in Seattle, Washington.
But much more than the legality of aid in dying—commonly known as assisted suicide, which misrepresents the practice, limited as it is to patients with a terminal illness—is at stake. Even if, as Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, contends, Thursday’s document is a moral statement and not a kick-off to a political campaign to end legal aid in dying, it will serve as marching orders in the coming years for already-mobilized and funded “prolife” activists—whether Catholic, evangelical, Mormon or unaffiliated—who will use it to determine how they vote and organize. That means, as veterans on the abortion rights front will tell you, a heightened assault on end-of-life rights. They’ll also tell you that failing to see the larger implications of the church’s domination of life and death discussions leads to an erosion of patients’ rights, rights that, when lost, are seldom regained.
Under pressure from the Catholic Church and its affiliates, rights of patients across the board could be weakened. From efficacy of advanced directives and living wills (documents used to state patients’ healthcare wishes), to medical proxy laws (that appoint patient guardians), from hospice and palliative funding and regulation, to drug regulation, to laws that govern hospitals, hospital workers and home healthcare aids. But also at stake are the laws that govern inheritance rights, death certificate parameters and legality regarding suicide (which assisted suicide is often equated with). The list goes on.