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Catholicism and Death with Dignity

Celtic CrossThe author writes under the pseudonym Jay D. Halsted because he works for a diocese part-time in the Southwest. Halsted is a retired journalist who volunteers in nursing homes.

No one gets out of this world alive. That's a fact. And fear of dying is death's side effect.

Many of us have watched loved ones suffer for years. My stepfather, for example, spent 10 years as an invalid with emphysema. He lost one leg from lack of circulation. He suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Every breath was torture. Ten years of suffering! Did he want to die? You bet. When the doctor asked him if there was anything he wanted, he said, "My shotgun." He didn't get it.

Death with Dignity takes away the fear. It doesn't mean we're going to rush to the grave. It means we can face the future knowing we never have to be imprisoned by our bodies.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops would have us remain the slaves of pain. On June 16, 2011, the bishops approved a statement condemning physician-assisted death. Their reasons:

  1. People who take their lives often suffer from mental illness
  2. Family or physicians can influence the patient's choice to die
  3. A choice to take one's life is a choice to eliminate all choices
  4. Society as a whole will suffer because it will lose respect for other rights and freedoms and lead us down the "slippery slope" toward taking the lives of people with non-terminal conditions.

The bishops are entitled to make their rules. That's their job. But do modern Catholics obey? No.

I'm a Catholic, and I observe people in the pew are making their own decisions. The most obvious example is the wholesale ignoring of restrictions on artificial birth control. Couples come to church with their 2.3 children, instead of the 6, 7 and 8 children in former times, and it's not because they're taking their temperatures every day.  It's because they're on the Pill, using condoms or "getting fixed."

Catholic women have abortions at about the same rate as the rest of the population. According to research presented by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Protestant women in the US obtain 37% of all abortions; Catholic women account for 31%. Jewish women, who face no stigma on abortion, account for only 1.3%.

The statistics on Jewish women and abortion adds some proof that providing options without stigma does not take people down "the slippery slope," in the bishops' 4th objection. Openness on abortion seems to lower their use of abortion clinics.

The Death With Dignity Law was passed in Oregon in 1994 and implemented in 1998. Since then, according to Death with Dignity statistics, 525 people have died after ingesting the prescribed medication. That's 525 people over 13 years. In 2010 alone, 23,400 people over 65 died in Oregon. There is no "slippery slope" to the cemeteries in that state!

Rebuttal to the bishops' Objection 1: People with mental illness sometimes commit suicide. It doesn't follow that people who are terminally ill have mental illness. They have physical illness and physical suffering. The depression they may suffer is secondary and doesn't preclude them from making competent end-of-life care decisions. If it appears clinical depression or another mental illness is clouding their judgment, they must be referred for psychological evaluation to determine mental competency and can't continue the process until they've been determined to be capable to make their own medical decisions.

Objection 2: Of course, family and physicians will influence patients. Doctors will give patients the facts — including other end-of-life options — and provide the necessary medications. Family members will most often urge ailing relatives not to leave them. In the end, the decision to die still should be the patient's alone.

Objection 3: This is straight out of Catholic theology, which says suicide is the gravest of all sins because it's the one sin that cannot be confessed. But what is there to confess with a comfortable death? Suffering already eliminates meaningful choices.

The idea that suffering patients can use this time to "devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves" is ridiculous. Anyone who's had the flu knows physical illness takes away the ability to think, talk, relate to anyone, even pray. Maybe the saints could do it, but we're just ordinary people trying to do the best we can in life — and death. If you doubt this, visit a nursing home and try to find a patient who's able to be devout and peaceful. You'll be lucky to find one.

We're not going to end the aging process. All the anti-oxidants, exercise programs, and innovative drugs in the world will not prevent us from growing old and infirm. What we can end is our lack of control over suffering. We need control over our own death to eliminate our fear of dying.

To the Catholic bishops, I say this: God gives us the ability to use medical and nutritional technology to keep or restore health to His gift of life. God also gives us the ability to know when we can nurture life no longer. It's a decision between God, the patient and the doctor.

It's an invasion of privacy that we even have to vote on it.

Posted on August 9, 2011 in Personal Stories, Religion


  • Posted by Nora Miller on Tuesday, August 09 at 08:58 a.m.

    Thanks, Jay, for an articulate presentation of the realities of Catholic life in America. The bishops made it crystal clear that their objections to Death with Dignity arise from their religious tenets. As you say, they have a right to make their own rules, but those rules should have no bearing on the choices made by non-Catholics. Unfortunately, many hospitals are being taken over or merged with Catholic corporations that apply those rules to all patients regardless of their religious beliefs. Worse yet, in some towns, the one now-Catholic hospital is the only option, which means people can be deprived of their rights in this matter by default. I would love to see American Catholics stand up to their leadership in this matter, but it seems likely they will simply continue their habits of going to church on Sunday and ignoring the rules the rest of the week. We can only hope that as more of us attend our dying parents, we become more committed to attaining and protecting this right for ourselves and for generations to come.

  • Posted by Damiano de Sano Iocovozzi MSN FNP CNS on Friday, August 12 at 08:51 a.m.

    Everyone is entitled to their beliefs or non-beliefs in an afterlife. There is no moral, legal or ethical reason to save every life that is past all cures, all remissions, all reprieves from advanced age and dementia. The 6 noble goals of medicine remain at the core of ethical medical practice: education & advice about diagnoses, prognoses, doing no harm, relief of symptoms, restoration of health, restoration of function or some function, saving or prolonging a life. Dilemmas, for example, occur when someone in the subset of patients as mentioned above gets placed into a cure orientation where a path of medical futility gets started, causing useless pain & suffering, cauing more burden than benefit. The Catholic Church has tried to be pro-life at every turn. However, the sacrament of extreme unction is a pro-forma blessing of godspeed to the dying. Finally, the Church understands that every life has a beginning & certain end. It doesn't condone active involuntary euthanasia because of the cause to do harm. Damiano de Sano Iocovozzi, Thomas Edwin Walls Foundation,

  • Posted by Joe Heat on Friday, August 12 at 02:36 p.m.

    Nobody should want their life taken. It's a ridiculous side of today's society. That's all I have to say.

  • Posted by Terry on Wednesday, August 17 at 09:50 a.m.

    Guest Blogger's truest statement:

    "Anyone who's had the flu knows physical illness takes away the ability to think, talk, relate to anyone, even pray."

    And therein lies my objection to this horrid law.

  • Posted by sandy on Thursday, August 18 at 08:52 p.m.

    It is ignorant for that person to have said "Nobody should want their life taken. It's a ridiculous side of today's society. That's all I have to say." well, newsflash, suicide is not something of "todays society" but extending life without quality..i.e vegetative state or in extreme a product of the modern medicine.."today's society" I wont wish you a painful long death..but I hope you do not have one yourself.

  • Posted by Karen on Thursday, August 25 at 10:25 a.m.

    I would want to see a lot more evidence that this kind of law won't make it easier for selfish family members to pressure people into exiting early. Right now, the fact that suicide is considered an extreme option makes it harder for people to steer ill people in that direction. I spent 4 months taking care of my father when he was dying of cancer, including 3 weeks of home hospice at the end; we went through all kinds of medical nastiness and embarrassing problems (e.g. diapering). Nevertheless, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a day of the time I shared with him; while he was still conscious, he expressed that it had been worth everything he'd gone through to have that time with me. All this time, though, other relatives were pressuring me to put him in a nursing home and "not put yourself through all that horror." My family offered no help at all, and I had to argue repeatedly for my choice to stick by him and help him die naturally at home rather than dump him in a facility and leave it to the professionals. Finally I had to limit contact with certain family members until it was over. I really wonder what kinds of arguments I would've had with those people if we had been living in a culture in which it's considered normal for dying people to just take a handful of pills in order to avoid the messy natural end.

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Thursday, August 25 at 04:19 p.m.

    Thank you for asking, Karen. I noticed you posted this comment on another site, and I'm glad I have the opportunity to answer your concerns here.

    A couple of things I highly recommend reading through to help you in your quest:
    - Read the text of the law ( and a summary of the request process ( I think you'll find the request process is completely patient-driven, includes safeguards to ensure the terminally-ill patient is making the decision for him or herself, that the patient must be informed of all other feasible end-of-life options (including hospice and palliative care), and has the opportunity at any time to decide not to take the medication.
    - Check out this list of peer-reviewed academic articles about Death with Dignity Acts ( to see many of the extensive studies done regarding the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

    Lastly, it's very important to understand the decision to make a request under a Death with Dignity Act isn't for anyone other than the patient to decide. In fact, coercion is a Class A felony under the statute (

    All the best,
    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

  • Posted by Eldon on Wednesday, August 31 at 02:30 p.m.

    I'm a '68 diabetic male for 35 years, getting old and slow. I'm going to die, I know that and am ready for it - not tomorrow, but eventually. All the "stay healthy" Viagra and Cialis ads won't change that fact. More than three score and ten (I'm an atheist but some bible verses do contain accidental truths)will be a bonus ONLY if when I decide to go, I can go. Thanks for what you do. Peace.

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Thursday, September 01 at 11:42 a.m.

    Thank you for your kind words of support, Eldon!

    All the best,
    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

  • Posted by Brandi on Sunday, September 11 at 06:38 a.m.

    I'm so glad that all these nice religious people are here to "protect me" from myself. Why, I don't know what I would do without them to tell me what my quality of life is, and how I should spend these long, drawn out years of sufferng from a hopeless and horrific disease. Of course, I don't want my kids and family to remember me as having some function and dignity, I'd much rather they give up every joy they may experience and watch me die by inches.And of course, I don't have the right to a dignified end, if the church and polititians say I must suffer, well then, suffer I must, as they know what's best for me.

    Now that all that bull poopie is out of the way...there is nothing wrong with my mind, only my body. My family know, and they understand why I wish to go while I still have the strength and ability to hug and kiss them goodbye. DO you think my kids and husband WANT me to die? No, they don't. They would care for me until the natural, horrific end. But unlike many people, they respect that I do not wish to die that way. Yes, mentally ill people take their lives, yes, unscrupulous people will push their family members to go...and that is both tragic and wrong. But there is no "slippery slope" if a clearly sane person chooses self deliverance from unbearable and hopeless misery. People who support voluntary euthanasia are not comparable to Nazis and they are not advocating making the choices for others,they are advocating allowing people to choose for themselves. There is nothing insane about not wishing to suffer agony for someone else's religious or moral beliefs. I believe the opposite..demanding someone ELSE suffer because of YOUR religious or moral beliefs sounds far more insane to me.

  • Posted by Adriana on Sunday, January 08 at 01:44 p.m.

    "Leave "death" to God, he knows what to do.Remain with the "Fath" its what will save you".

    "Wait until the end comes, Don't walk... to the end"

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Friday, January 20 at 12:45 p.m.

    Thanks again for sharing your perspecive, Adriana. I'm curious; do you believe your religious beliefs should influence state laws? What if others don't share your religious beliefs?

    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

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