By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – What do you say to people who are suffering and dying?
That question was addressed at Saturday’s “Death with Real Dignity” forum at Assumption College, sponsored by the local Witness for Life Committee.
The speakers – Bishop McManus and Jesuit Father Myles N. Sheehan – called for seeing to it that patients receive palliative care to alleviate suffering.
“Sit with them and hold their hand,” said Father Sheehan, provincial of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. A physician and medical educator, he has training in internal medicine and geriatrics and expertise in palliative care.
Your job is not to be the defender of the faith but the incarnation of Christ, he said of how to treat the dying person. If they ask why this is happening to them, you could say: “I don’t know. I know I care for you. Have you got any answers?” That might move them to share what’s on their minds.
Jesus wanted his disciples to stay awake and be with him the night before he died, Father Sheehan noted.
“We cannot underestimate surrounding that person with attention and love,” Bishop McManus added. He said when his father was dying, it was important to have the family together.
How to respond to suffering and death was addressed throughout the forum, “Physician Assisted Suicide is Not the Answer,” which was sponsored by the local committee, The Catholic Free Press and Emmanuel Radio.
Listeners were urged to contact their legislators about House Bill 1991, which would legalize physician assisted suicide in Massachusetts. A hearing at which the public can share their thoughts about the bill orally, in writing or by simply attending is scheduled for 1-5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 27, in Rooms A1 and A2 at the Statehouse in Boston.
Opposition to physician assisted suicide is not only a Catholic point of view, Bishop McManus said in his talk about faith and reason in service to the dying. Human beings participate in divine law through reason, he said. He quoted the Declaration of Independence: liberty in government follows from “laws of nature and nature’s God.” He also quoted St. Thomas Aquinas: “Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good promulgated by those who have responsibility for protecting the common good.”
When a law is passed that is not reasonable and does not serve the common good, that law loses its ability to be enforced, Bishop McManus said.
He said it’s a myth that “you can’t legislate morality.” Laws are made for some moral issues, such as, “Thou shalt not kill,” but not for others, such as “Honor thy father and mother.”
Bishop McManus listed eras of medicine which were categorized by Edmund Pellegrino of the Kennedy Institute for Biomedical Ethics at Georgetown University. In 1960 the thought was “doctor knows best.” From 1960-1990 “patients’ rights” to decline unwanted medical interventions emerged. Since 1990 there has been a rise in “patient autonomy” – the patient’s “right” to decide if they want any or no treatment.
Bishop McManus said people are never radically autonomous because they live in relationship to God and in community. He spoke about the destructive “dictatorship of moral relativism” which says anyone can do their own thing as long as it doesn’t physically hurt another person. He spoke about “emotivism,” which depends on people’s feelings. But sometimes an action is so destructive of fundamental goals of the person that neither circumstances nor intentions can justify it, he said.
He said God is not the author of suffering; God wants human beings to experience only good and to gain salvation. But suffering is part of the evil in the world. One can make sense of it by uniting it to Christ’s suffering and death for one’s own or others’ spiritual benefit.
Father Sheehan said many advocates of physician assisted suicide are good people; they don’t want everyone dead. But people are afraid, and mistake physician assisted suicide as a good thing. They fear poor pain control, distressing symptoms, loss of dignity and being a burden. Others avoid thinking or talking about death.
“We need to use our faith and reason to craft an approach” that will touch the hearts and eventually the minds of those who support physician assisted suicide, he said.
He said Catholics have “a more excellent way” than requiring people to suffer; they have love. (I Cor 12:31, I Cor 13)
In his talk and PowerPoint presentation he placed death in the context of the Catholic faith, which values life on earth but knows it’s not the ultimate reality; eternal life follows.
He called for not simply being against physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, but building a civilization of love in the midst of a culture of death.
A civilization of love includes support for the dying and their families and the love of a believing community, spiritual meaning and comfort, forgiveness, hope, care, excellent pain and symptom control and respect for life and one’s own value even as one faces death, according to Father Sheehan.
He used material from the United States bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” and Educating Physicians in End-of-Life Care.
. Like Bishop McManus, he noted that Catholicism takes a middle ground between the extreme of withdrawing technology with the intention of causing death, and the opposite extreme of insisting on using useless or burdensome technology just to keep a person alive.
He said everyone is obliged to use ordinary means to preserve his or her health, but not extraordinary means. The patient decides, with a free and informed conscience, whether a procedure will provide a reasonable hope of benefit without imposing excessive risks and burdens on him or her, or excessive expense to the family or community.
Palliative care should provide physical, emotional, spiritual and social help, Father Sheehan pointed out, and said people need to push hospitals to have palliative care physicians.
Asked about choosing a health care proxy, Father Sheehan suggested saying to a potential proxy, “Here’s what I want; will you do it?” He said it’s important to have the necessary information on paper. Bishop McManus said it is crucial that the proxy have all the medical facts on which to base his or her decision about treatment, or non-treatment.
Asked about receiving care from hospice workers whose values may differ from yours, Father Sheehan said you need to be clear about your values. Hospice workers want to listen to you and will give you great care even if they believe differently than you, he said. And, if you don’t like their approach, dismiss them from caring for you.
“I thought the speakers were wonderful,” said Marc Millette of St. Brigid Parish in Millbury. He said he liked hearing the Church’s stance on suffering and that it’s not necessary to use extraordinary measures.
His mother, Gloria Millette, of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Millbury, said one of her problems has been seeing doctors who keep treating patients when it’s not helping. She said people should let God take care of the situation.
Nancy Kurema, a visiting nurse and parishioner at St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton, said she was inspired “to be more compassionate and more aware” of family members’ burdens and “just love them the way God wants us to love.”
She told of a friend shaking as he told her that his father was dying. She gave him a hug, a blanket and a cup of hot tea, listened to him and talked about him seeing his father in heaven. After his father died he said he was doing better; she had helped him.
How to submit testimony against physician-assisted suicide bill
By Sandra Kucharski
In 2012, voters went to the polls and narrowly defeated doctor prescribed suicide 51% to 49%. Because a ballot question cannot be presented to the voters again until 2018, proponents filed legislation in 2013 to allow physician assisted suicide. Although the bill failed to pass, those in favor of physician assisted suicide will not give up.
This Tuesday, Oct, 27, from 1-5 p.m. in Rooms A1 and A2 at the State House in Boston there will be a public hearing on the bill to legalize assisted suicide submitted again this year. We can still have a say in the matter.
Not everyone may be able to go to the hearing but each of us can contact our legislators. If every reader exercises their freedoms and fulfills their obligation to participate in civic affairs, doctor prescribed suicide can be defeated again.
This is the week to submit written testimony to the chairperson of the Joint Committee on Public Health and voice your concern about this bill. There are a whole host of problems with this proposed legislation. Here are some facts that you can cite in your testimony.
Currently, assisted suicide, including physician assisted suicide is a crime in Massachusetts. The law, if passed, would make it legal.
There is no waiting period for the prescription. The day your doctor makes the diagnosis that you are terminally ill with six months or less to live, you can receive the lethal prescription. Unless it is stated in your advanced care directive, your health care agent can request doctor prescribed suicide on your behalf. A third party could also request physician assisted suicide for you; there is no oversight to determine the accuracy of the request.
The proposed bill requires two witnesses. One of those witnesses could be someone who would benefit financially from your death. Since there are no protections for a patient once the prescription is filled, there is no way of knowing if the patient was really willing at the time of death to take the pills.
Doctors will be forced to lie about the cause of death, since the bill states that doctor prescribed suicide cannot be listed as the cause of death.
Physicians who oppose it must transfer the patient to another doctor and incur all of the costs of doing so.
Personal is powerful. Effective testimony makes use of logic, legitimacy and passion, but your testimony should not be just a stream of data or ideas. Testimony that is personal, that describes the impact on you, your family, your community, or an underserved or vulnerable group, such as the disabled and vulnerable elderly, gives the legislators a fuller picture and is extremely valuable. Maybe a doctor told you or someone in your family that they had six months to live and years later they are still alive. That would be an important thing to include. When preparing your testimony you can support it with studies, statistics or data, but to be effective it must be done within a personal context. In essence, you become a short story teller. State the reasons for taking your position.
Bill number: H 1991. You begin your written testimony by entering the bill name and number: H 1991, “An act affirming a terminally ill patient’s right to compassionate aid in dying.” The next line should have the name of the committee hearing the bill – Joint Committee on Public Health. On the next line if you have a title, enter a title that includes your position.
In the body of your testimony, summarize your position. Explain in paragraph form what the proposed legislation would do and why you oppose it. List the reasons for taking your position making sure you include why the issue is important to you and how your life or those around you might change if doctor prescribed suicide were to pass. As you close your testimony statement, summarize your position. Then write: “I do not support H 1991 because this bill would …” and state the reasons for your position. It’s that easy!
Email your testimony to Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or if mailing it, send it to: Senator Jason Lewis, Room 511B, State House, Boston MA 02133.
Do your part to defeat doctor prescribed suicide!