Catholic News Service photo
Patricia and John Peyton surf the Internet at their home in Seattle in  2008. John, 64, spent his final months with Lou Gehrig's disease  lobbying against Washington state's assisted suicide initiative.
Catholic News Service photo
Patricia and John Peyton surf the Internet at their home in Seattle in 2008. John, 64, spent his final months with Lou Gehrig's disease lobbying against Washington state's assisted suicide initiative.
Advocates of legalizing assisted suicide are collecting signatures to get on the 2012 Massachusetts ballot.

That, plus a 2008 vote in Washington state and a 2009 decision by the Montana Supreme Court, has Catholic leaders sounding the alarm again about a practice they say endangers human dignity.

"The assisted suicide campaign has revived in the past three years," said Richard Doerflinger, speaking during a Sept. 20 seminar from Washington D.C. broadcast via Internet.

For a decade after Oregonians passed the nation's first assisted suicide law, voters and lawmakers in other states rejected bids for similar legislation. It seemed Oregon would be an American anomaly. But then Washington's electorate and the Montana court approved lethal prescriptions in their states. New England, with its libertarian spirit, is seen as a new major target.   

The Oregon experience arises during assisted suicide debates everywhere. Some advertisments claim the law has worked smoothly. Others point out problems, like the small number of patients who receive mental health referrals and cases like that of the late Barbara Wagner, whose insurer refused to pay for cancer drugs but held out the option of a lethal prescription. In Oregon, more than 500 people have died using the controversial law since it went into effect in 1998.

The Oregon law carves out a class of citizens — those diagnosed with six months or less to live — and suspends statutes that protect them from getting help to kill themselves.  For Doerflinger, it's like coming across two people about to jump off a bridge, one who has a diagnosis of six months or less to live. For one, society tries persuasion, mental health treatment and emergency intervention. But to the one who has a serious physical illness, Doerflinger explained, "We say, 'Jump. Can I give you a push?'"

The issue, he said, is that our culture is uncomfortable with sickness and disability. "We don't see inherent dignity in people when thy have these conditions."  

Reflecting on the Oregon experience, Doerflinger explained that the movement in opposition to assisted suicide needs to use arguments that uphold church teaching while making sense to non-Catholics. In Vermont last year, a coalition of doctors and disability rights activists stepped to the forefront and succeeded in thwarting an assisted suicide bill in the state legislature. That was a change from Oregon, where assisted suicide activists captured anti-Catholic sentiment in their 1994 campaign.

"Assisted suicide is objectively a most unloving solution," said Capuchin Father Dan Mindling, a moral theologian at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Maryland. "It ruins the solidarity we have with each other. It can make people think it is alright to kill themselves or get themselves out of the way. There is pressure to get out of way."

Physicians may think they are being neutral when they get involved, said Father Mindling, but giving lethal drugs amounts to concurring in suicide.

"Face it, there is no pro-choice stance here," he said during the web seminar, funded by the Knights of Columbus. The priest criticized recent films like "Million Dollar Baby" for making assisted suicide seem like a common option for disabled people and for suggesting that some lives are not worth living.  

"Human dignity is an endowment, not an achivement," said Father Mindling. Family and friends, he added, should be "supportive and loving" to terminally ill patients, letting them know that "they are not a burden, they are a blessing."