October is Respect Life Month, which makes it an especially appropriate time to learn about another threat to human life that has followed on the heels of abortion: physician-assisted suicide.
The issue is urgent: Bills have been proposed in New York state that would make it legal for doctors to provide lethal drugs to patients with a terminal illness who ask to take their own lives. Such laws already exist in Oregon, California, Washington, Montana and Vermont.
I spoke recently with Norine DiCarlo, a retired registered nurse who is the pro-life coordinator at her parish, Blessed Sacrament in New Rochelle, and a co-worker with the Sisters of Life. She is deeply concerned about the growing support for physician-assisted suicide, especially within the medical profession. She remarked that an effort is under way in the American Medical Association to change its position on physician-assisted suicide from opposition to neutrality.
“That’s alarming,” she said, “because acceptance of physician-assisted suicide will change the entire nature of the medical profession.”
While abortion has had “profound repercussions” throughout medicine, it mainly affects the practices of obstetricians and gynecologists, Ms. DiCarlo said, but physician-assisted suicide would affect internists, family practitioners and geriatricians, as well as hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.
“It’s not that it’s a more grievous offense than abortion,” she continued. “Abortion opened the way for physician-assisted suicide by violating an ethic that reverences life.”
Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that the Hippocratic Oath changed the medical profession because it joined the practice of medicine with an ethic of reverence for life. The oath contains a promise to “give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked.” With physician-assisted suicide, “we’re divorcing doctors’ expertise from the Hippocratic ethic,” she said.
She also mentioned the role that financial considerations could play in making decisions for death.
“There’s a lot of money in this,” she said. The proposed New York state law requires two witnesses when a patient signs a form requesting to commit suicide. One of the witnesses can be an heir of the person who is to die. Ms. DiCarlo also mentioned that potential savings for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security could be an incentive for encouraging the ill elderly to “choose” to die.
Ms. DiCarlo’s specialty is psychiatric nursing; she was assistant director of nursing in the Department of Psychiatry at Jacobi and North Central Bronx hospitals in the Bronx. Her career included 10 years in the psychiatric emergency room at Jacobi, doing crisis intervention and psychiatric evaluations. She stressed the importance of “establishing a connection” with patients who were in despair, and how it could give them hope.
I also spoke with Edward Mechmann, director of public policy for the New York Archdiocese, who said that physician-assisted suicide is indeed a grave threat, and added something that Ms. DiCarlo also mentioned.
“There is a nationwide movement trying to go state-by-state to legalize assisted suicide,” Mechmann said, “and they have targeted New York because they think that if New York falls, many other states will follow.”
He and his staff have been going to parishes to inform people about the issue. Education is vital, he said.
“A lot of people don’t understand it,” he added. “They haven’t studied it carefully, and they are swayed by superficially persuasive slogans like ‘death with dignity,’” or catchphrases that speak of “compassion” and “choice.”
“When people look at these bills, and the impact that assisted suicide will have on the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and how unregulated it will be, I think they have second thoughts about it,” Mechmann said.
Ms. DiCarlo also rejects the idea that physician-assisted suicide is compassionate.
“You cannot legislate compassion,” she said. “You can only change the law to make it legal to kill. Once you have done that, you have opened a Pandora’s box. You have put the right to kill in the hands of fallible human beings.”
We need to get informed and get busy.