Legalized euthanasia must still be fought – and that fight requires a broad argument that can persuade people of all beliefs, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller told a Canadian audience May 15.
Euthanasia is not only wrong in itself, but its legalization creates “toxic and deadly pathologies that disproportionately afflict the weakest members of society,” the cardinal told the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute at a gathering at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.
A clear understanding of legal assisted suicide’s individual and social wrongs is needed to persuade Canadians to take the steps to reverse the “dangerous legal error” of the Canadian Supreme Court and Parliament, which recently legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide nationwide.
He voiced confidence that all persons of good will should be able to see “the profound and inevitable social harms that fall disproportionately on the weak and vulnerable when euthanasia is legalized.”
“The goodness of a society can be measured by how well it treats and protects its weakest and most vulnerable members,” he said. “Nations that legalize euthanasia fail to care rightly for the least of our brothers and sisters.”
In Cardinal Mueller’s view, the prudential argument against euthanasia is the most powerful argument in a pluralistic society that can persuade people of all religious beliefs, including those without religious beliefs.
He found an example of such persuasion in early 1990s New York. A commission called the New York Task Force on Life and Law had been convened by then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. The commission began its work expecting to recommend legal assisted suicide.
“But when they studied the question carefully and dispassionately, they quickly realized that the toxic and deadly social pathologies that would inevitably accompany legalization were too grave and severe to justify such a course of action,” he said.
“The committee recommended that assisted suicide and euthanasia should remain illegal, because decriminalizing these practices would inexorably lead to: grave and lethal new forms of fraud, abuse, coercion and discrimination against the disabled, poor, elderly, and minorities; deadly forms of coercion by insurers and faithless family members; corrosion of the doctor-patient relationship; an eventual shift to non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia; and widespread neglect of treatment for mental illness and pain management.”
The cardinal cited the commission’s own words:
“We believe that the practices would be profoundly dangerous for large segments of the population, especially in light of the widespread failure of American medicine to treat pain adequately or to diagnose and treat depression in many cases. The risks would extend to all individuals who are ill,” it said. They would be most severe for those whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by poverty, lack of access to good medical care, or membership in a stigmatized social group.”
The commission said the risks of legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia for marginalized groups are “likely to be extraordinary” given that the health care system and society “cannot effectively protect against the impact of inadequate resources and ingrained social disadvantage.”
According to the cardinal, the New York task force was particularly struck by the situation in the Netherlands at the time, where there was one case of killing without consent for every three or four who died in consensual euthanasia. The commission projected that if euthanasia were similarly practiced in the U.S., about 36,000 people would die in voluntary euthanasia per year and another 16,000 would be victims of non-consensual euthanasia.
As an example of involuntary euthanasia, the cardinal cited reports from the Netherlands in which “a doctor surreptitiously euthanized a nun over her objections, and justified it on the grounds that she was mistaken about her best interests due to an irrational and superstitious commitment to religious belief.”
In U.S. states where euthanasia has been legalized, there have been cases of insurance companies that offer to pay for assisted suicide drugs rather than pay for costly medical treatment. Family members have also pressured patients into choosing suicide.
The cardinal distinguished assisted suicide and euthanasia from aggressive pain treatment, which aims to eliminate suffering through potentially risky means, not to kill the patient.
He said assisted suicide or direct killing are deceptively described as “aid in dying.” This is “a fabricated expression whose only rhetorical function is to conceal the very nature of the death-dealing action it describes.”
“The use of euphemism or obscure terminology in issues involving life and death should always alert us to an effort to hide the truth,” Cardinal Mueller said.
He countered justification for assisted suicide that claims that euthanasia only affects the patient and people are entitled to choose the time and manner of their death.
“Anyone who has ever experienced the suicide of a loved one or even a casual acquaintance knows the profound effects this can have on entire communities,” he said, citing the demonstrated risks of suicide spreading like a “contagion.”
Euthanasia is not self-contained, as it affects families and communities and alters the medical community’s relationship to patients and the public.
Suicidal patients are often not in a position to exercise autonomy, and suicidal desires often depart once mental illness and pain are effectively treated.
“This is true even among the terminally ill,” he said.
The cardinal defended doctors and nurses who could face coercion for refusing to participate in euthanasia.
“ No one who trains and takes an oath to care for the sick should be pressed into ending the lives of the very people that they have promised to serve,” he said, saying that refusal to aid in euthanasia “represents basic fidelity to the very medical art that the physician professes.”
Cardinal Mueller said church teaching on euthanasia is accessible and enduring.
“The Catholic Church has long recognized that every human being, no matter his or her condition or circumstance, is possessed of inalienable and equal dignity,” he said. “This beautiful truth about the human person and his matchless worth is intelligible and self evident to every person of good will, regardless of faith tradition.”
The cardinal cited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, which said that making an attempt on the life of an innocent person opposes God’s love for the person.
While there are psychological factors that diminish or remove moral responsibility, to take one’s own life is “often a refusal of love for self, the denial of a natural instinct to live, a flight from the duties of justice and charity owed to one’s neighbor, to various communities or to the whole of society.”