"Big Four" Highlights


Death Be Not Proud

Physician-assisted suicide is not the answer to old age or illness

Should a doctor be allowed to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients who request them? That’s the question at the heart of the debate over physician-assisted suicide, which has been allowed in four states and is being pushed in others. How does this practice change the doctor-patient relationship, and does it negate the most basic tenet of the medical profession: Primum non nocere – First, do no harm?

As director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, Kathleen Gallagher is asking these and other questions about end-of-life decisions as the Albany legislature considers a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Before people jump to conclusions about these sensitive, personal issues, Gallagher wants to make sure that they understand the Church's stance regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life, and the special care that is due the elderly and the disabled. To explain the issues, the New York bishops’ conference recently released a high-quality, eight-minute video (“Now and at the Hour of Our Death”) which addresses the questions, doubts and fears many people have about decisions at the end of life.

Fathers for Good corresponded with Gallagher via email.

Fathers for Good: Does the Catholic Church teach that you must use all medical means to keep a person alive as long as possible?

Kathleen Gallagher: The Catholic Church does not teach that life must be preserved by any and all means. Extraordinary treatments are not necessary when death is near and burdens outweigh the benefits. People must be allowed to die. But we can never intentionally take their lives or help them to take their lives.

FFG: What does the Church say about living wills or other decisions for end of life? When should people start planning?

Gallagher: The Catholic Church recommends designating a proxy decision-maker to make health care decisions for you should you become incapacitated. Ideally, this decision-maker should be someone who understands and shares the Catholic faith, and can apply Catholic values to the medical situation at hand. Difficult as they may be, it is important to have conversations about death and dying with your loved ones early on. Most states allow a health care proxy to be signed by people starting at age 18. Don’t wait until you are older and dying. A living will or other written document is not a preferred advance directive because it is inflexible and concrete, and tries to predict future medical situations, and that is impossible.

FFG: How many states have physician-assisted suicide, and how is the bill going in New York?

Gallagher: Only four states have legalized physician-assisted suicide to date: Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont. Three different versions of assisted suicide bills have been introduced this year in NYS. We are busy building coalitions with disability rights’ organizations, medical and hospice providers, and other faith groups to fight them. We are promoting better education in pain management and improved access to hospice and palliative care for the terminally ill.


FFG: What is the message of the “End of Life” 8-minute video that you produced?

Gallagher: Just as each human being is unique, each patient’s medical situation is unique. Therefore, each patient, or their proxy decision-maker, should pray for guidance and graces, seek counsel from family members/trusted clergy advisor, and gather all relevant medical information before coming to a conclusion about a medical intervention. These are not so much medical decisions, as they are moral decisions.

We believe that CatholicEndofLife.org is a wonderful resource for Catholics (and others!) to start to think about the inevitable. Death is not a “choice”; death is a certainty. And because every human life has inherent dignity, every natural death is a “death with dignity.”