by Cathleen A. Cleaver
November 9, 2001
Lucille was in her 60s and had cancer. She wasn't in pain, but she worried a lot. Her treatment was expensive, but her greatest worry was that she was beginning to be a burden to her husband. She gradually stopped doing the things she normally liked to do, like experimenting with new recipes and writing long letters to friends on home-made stationery. Lucille didn't realize it, but she was clinically depressed. Instead of looking for a doctor to help her, she found a doctor who prescribed drugs for committing suicide. A month later, Lucille took the drugs.
Lucille (a fictitious name) fits the profile of the average person who died under Oregon's assisted suicide law last year. The vast majority of people who have committed suicide in Oregon with the help of a doctor are women; most are married, and most are not in pain. Most cite a fear of being a "burden on family, friends or caregivers" as a reason for their suicide. Most were not referred for a psychological evaluation, despite a medical consensus that treatable depression is the main cause of suicidal wishes among the sick and elderly.
Last year alone twenty-seven people died in Oregon, and these Oregon deaths were a federal affair. The prescriptions were for federally-controlled drugs given by doctors holding federal prescribing licenses, using federal prescription pads. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the federal government had found an aggressive method of stepping up estate tax collection.
Thankfully, this has come to an end. On November 6, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive which removes the federal government from the business of assisted suicide. His directive overturned a contrary 1998 opinion by Attorney General Janet Reno permitting the use of federally controlled drugs for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon.
Reno's opinion was utterly unprecedented. In effect, her ruling said that one state in the Union could choose to ignore a federal law that governs the 49 other states. It ignored the language and long history of the federal Controlled Substances Act, to claim that assisting suicide was now to be a "legitimate medical purpose" for federally controlled drugs. That is, as long as you're in Oregon. Though it will be challenged–and the legal challenges have already begun–Ashcroft's decision will likely stand.
Suicide among the sick and elderly is not a "medical practice" but a tragic public health problem deserving a thoughtful, caring response. Government involvement in assisted suicide tells terminally ill people that society finds their lives expendable. Our response to them should be just the opposite. When the problems of pain and depression are addressed adequately, there is generally no more talk of suicide. When the young and able-bodied talk of suicide, we respond with counseling, assistance, and sometimes even hospitalization to protect their lives. If we respond to the old or dying with an offer of lethal drugs, are we not saying that some lives are worth protecting and others are not?
Our moral tradition holds that human life is the most basic gift from a loving God. By ending government-aided suicide, we reaffirm, to ourselves as a society and to the medical profession, that the lives of all people are precious.
Cathleen A. Cleaver, Esq. is Director of Planning and Information for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities