|Father Tad Pacholczyk|
Acceptance of legalizing physician assisted suicide and euthanasia is growing in the United States. “This is something coming at us fast and furious and with some momentum,” said Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education and an ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
Father Pacholczyk was the guest speaker to the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association after its annual White Coat Mass for health care workers was celebrated Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
There have been several developments concerning the issue in recent months. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, voters in Colorado approved an initiative to legalize physician assisted suicide, making it the sixth state to do so.
On Tuesday, Nov. 15, the District of Columbia City Council approved a bill allowing doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives. The measure moves to Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for approval or veto. If it is approved, the law would be subject to congressional review.
And last summer, the American Medical Association rejected a proposal to continue its long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide and instead appointed a committee to consider whether the organization should change its position on the issue to neutral, said Father Pacholczyk, who has undergraduate degrees in philosophy, biochemistry, molecular cell biology and chemistry, a doctorate in neuroscience, and five years of study in Rome of dogmatic theology and bioethics.
Medical professional associations hold a lot of power in determining social acceptance of issues such as physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, Father Pacholczyk said. “Once its neutral, it’s full bore ahead.”
He urged physicians to contact the American Medical Association to support continued opposition to physician assisted suicide.
“The role of the physician is to attend to and care for the sick and debilitated, and, I would add, the vulnerable,” Father Pacholczyk said.
The original Hippocratic Oath, written by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was pre-Christian but talks of health care as sacred, and of being entrusted with the life of another as holy work, Father Pacholczyk said.
The power of the Hippocratic Oath to endure through the ages, he said, comes from the realization that the physician’s knowledge can be a two-edged sword. Before Hippocrates, physicians could cure or kill, Father Pacholczyk said. With the rise of physician assisted suicide, “we’re headed that way again,” he added.
At the core of the discussion of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia is the issue of trust, Father Pacholczyk said. Knowing that a doctor will not participate in our death helps us to trust the physician, he said.
The Netherlands, which already has legalized euthanasia for terminally ill patients, is now considering allowing physician assisted suicide for people not terminally ill. With assisted suicide, the physician prescribes a lethal toxin that the patient administers himself, and with euthanasia, the physician administers the lethal toxin.
“It really is a short step from killing someone who is ill to killing someone who is not ill,” Father Pacholczyk said. According to anonymous surveys of physicians in the Netherlands, 6,000 people were killed by doctors without their request or knowledge, Father Pacholczyk said.
There are morally acceptable alternatives to physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, such as hospice and palliative care, Father Pacholczyk said. And there are ways to mitigate the pain of terminally ill patients, he added.
According to “The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” Father Pacholczyk said, “patients should be kept as free of pain as possible so that they may die comfortably and with dignity, and in the place where they wish to die.”
“It’s important we have the courage to call suicide a mistake,” Father Pacholczyk said. “It’s an illusion that you can ever kill yourself without hurting somebody. … Those of us who’ve dealt with suicides know that’s a myth.”
Supporters of physician assisted suicide often argue that terminally ill patients no longer have an acceptable quality of life. Some in the medical profession revert to this arugment too easily, Father Pacholczyk said. Instead, it is a fundamental corruption of what quality of life should involve, he added.
Giving in to fears about the quality of life for terminally ill patients leads to bad moral decisions, Father Pacholczyk said.