PORTLAND – The story in the July 10 Maine Sunday Telegram regarding Norman Morse’s struggles with end-of-life issues is easy for people to relate to.

Many, if not most of us, have witnessed the progressive loss of physical well-being of parents and other loved ones in old age or, worse yet, the suffering due to serious illness of young or middle aged people close to us.

Our sense of compassion and eagerness to relieve them of all suffering understandably can lead us to consider physician-assisted suicide as an act of “mercy.”

The question is whether this is indeed an act of compassion that is in the best interest of the patient and society, or whether it is instead a practice fraught with dangers and unintended consequences.

For Catholics, and for many other people of faith, life is a sacred gift from God. Only God can determine the time of our death.

Assisted suicide (euthanasia) is therefore not an acceptable practice. It is gravely immoral.

MANY OTHER REASONS

However, this is not the sole basis for opposing physician-assisted suicide. There are ample good reasons why physician-assisted suicide is a tragically flawed alternative from a purely secular perspective.

In a 1990 referendum, Maine people rejected physician-assisted suicide by a narrow margin.

It is crucial to note that this outcome represented a startling turnaround of citizen attitudes about physician assisted suicide as compared to the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Polling at that time indicated that the vast majority of Mainers, 70 percent and more, approved of physician-assisted suicide and planned to vote in favor of it at the polls.

Why was there such a turnaround? Research shows that Maine people came to realize what so many in other states had already learned: Physician-assisted suicide is laden with dangers of abuse despite attempts to build in safeguards.

What we feared at that time has indeed proven to be reality as other states and countries that have legalized physician-assisted suicide have documented serious abuses.

A study carried out by Dr. Ruaidhri McCormack, Dr. M. Clifford and Dr. M. Conroy at the Department of Palliative Medicine in Milford Care Centre, Limerick, Ireland, looked at 16 studies published during the period 1990-2010. What they found was this:

• In The Netherlands (Holland) in 2005, more than 560 people were killed without having given explicit consent to their deaths. It was further noted that repeated attempts to bring those who perpetrated these cases of abuse to trial failed.

• The situation is even worse in Belgium. Sixty-six out of 208 cases of euthanasia, a rate of 32 percent, took place without the request of the patient.

• They also found defects when it comes to the mandatory reporting of cases of assisted suicide. In Belgium, nearly half the cases are not reported. Not surprisingly, they also noted that legal requirements were less likely to be followed in those cases that went unreported.

• In their study, they observed that restrictions initially placed on physician-assisted suicide were over time loosened significantly. An example of this is the fact that when advocates were promoting physician-assisted suicide legalization in Holland, they said it would be for a very small number of patients experiencing unbearable pain.

• Today in Holland, the Royal Dutch Medical Association declared that physician-assisted suicide should be open for everyone over the age of 70, whether they are in poor health or not.8 Similar cases of abuse and unintended consequences have been documented in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide was first legalized in the United States.

INVITATION TO ABUSE

The fundamental reality is that physician-assisted suicide is a prescription for abuse.

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide can be an open invitation for the unscrupulous to pressure elderly family members to end it all quickly to preserve financial resources, a threat to the disabled who fear being pressured into making decisions that are not of their choosing.

Additionally, it opens the door to medical malpractice.

The repeated admonition of the earlier referendum campaign, “It’s just too dangerous,” is now a documented reality.

Mainers would be wise to continue on the path that both sides of the debate committed to after the referendum vote, to work together to improve pain management in our state and increase the availability of hospice care for the dying. 

– Special to the Telegram