Catholic group seeks ban on assisted suicide

CHA reiterates call for quality end-of-life care

The day before the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two physician-assisted suicide cases (Jan. 8, 1996), the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA) again urged the court to draw the line at recognizing the desire to end one’s own life as a constitutional right.

Based in St. Louis, the CHA represents more than 1,200 Catholic-sponsored facilities and organizations, whose members make up the nation’s largest group of not-for-profit health care organizations under single sponsorship.

To counter claims of a need for assisted suicide, the CHA joined 40 organizations, including some of the nation’s most prominent medical societies like the American Medical Association, in calling for health care providers to ensure that people who have terminal illnesses still are able to live out their lives comfortably and meaningfully.

"The energy and resources expended in the current public policy debate on physician-assisted suicide would be better directed to refocusing the American health care system so that it responds more sensitively and compassionately to the needs of people suffering from life-threatening illness, their families, and their communities," says the CHA’s Jack Bresch, a member of the leadership team of Supportive Care of the Dying: A Coalition for Compassionate Care.

Bresch spoke in January at a National Press Club news conference hosted by the American Geriatrics Society to announce that a broad-based constituency of health groups, including the CHA, the AMA, the American Nurses Association, the American College of Physicians, and the National Hospice Organization subscribes to the policy set forth in "Measuring Quality of Care at the End of Life: A Statement of Principles."

CHA and these groups agree that the public debate over physician-assisted suicide cannot be responsibly resolved without attending to the serious shortcomings in care that most people get as they die. The groups argue that pain control, advance care planning, family involvement, and reforms in medical education are needed.

Last November, CHA submitted a "friend of the court" brief to the Supreme Court urging justices to reverse the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Washington v. Glucksberg and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Quill v. Vacco. (See related story in LegalEase column, p. 29). Although the rulings used different rationales, both lower courts found that physician-assisted suicide merited constitutional protection.

"These decisions misconstrue our nation’s history, the sacred trust of the physician/ patient relationship, and the dictates of our Constitution," argues CHA President and CEO John E. Curley.

The CHA and other groups contend that both courts mistakenly equate the forgoing of life-sustaining treatment with a physician prescribing lethal medication for a patient.

Says Curley, "Our Catholic tradition and more than 200 years of legal history distinguishes between the forgoing of life-sustaining treatment, which may be appropriate, and helping persons kill themselves, which is always condemnable."