Pastoral Letter to the Catholic People of New Zealand on Euthanasia

29 Aug 1995 | BIOETHICS

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Euthanasia occurs when a doctor, not an illness, kills a patient.

It is an act or omission which causes the death of a person, and is done with the intention of causing his or her death, in order to relieve that person's sufferings, and done with the person's consent.

It goes beyond not prolonging life. It is direct and intentional killing. Its legalisation would place a most dangerous and immoral power in the hands of human beings.

No doctor in New Zealand at the present time has the right to kill anyone. If we accept euthanasia we give a doctor a licence to kill. The dignity and care of the medical and nursing professions must not be undermined by a lessening of respect for life.

Those who want to legalise euthanasia emphasise that it must be the patient's choice. However, patients may easily underestimate their ability, supported by God's grace, to cope with a terminal illness. Moreover, it is abundantly clear from the Dutch experience that legal euthanasia is very soon joined by illegal euthanasia.

To legalise euthanasia would put at risk the lives of all those people whom others might be tempted to think would be better off dead; or who themselves might be led to believe, for whatever reason, that they have become an excessive burden to others.

As Christians, we cannot be free from blame if there are people in our communities unable to find human comfort and assistance as they approach the end of their lives. To those for whom euthanasia might seem a solution to their distress, we point to the development of effective palliative care and control of pain. To those who minister to the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of the dying, we express our gratitude and esteem. To government we appeal for resources to be made available for the care of the aged and dying.

It is probable that New Zealanders will continue to be under pressure to agree to the legalisation of euthanasia.

For the moral health of our society, we must not allow ourselves to be convinced by appeals to emotion rather than to principle.

There is no need for euthanasia.

No patient and no doctor is under any obligation to prolong life unnecessarily. Indeed, it is the patient, not the doctor, who should decide whether painful, expensive or complicated means should be used to prolong the life of a dying person. The patient is free not to receive such treatments. We would welcome public debate on this topic, so that patients might be more aware of their options and their rights.

It is also legitimate for a doctor to use any and every approved drug to alleviate the pain and suffering of a dying person. Those who argue for euthanasia usually do not give modern medicine the credit for what it has achieved in this field. The science of palliative care, as it is called, has made remarkable progress. Doctors, particularly those in hospices for the dying, have learnt how to suppress pain without suppressing the patient. Nurses are trained to relieve mental discomfort and effectively assist the dying through the last days or hours of their natural life.

It must be acknowledged, however, that even after human care and technology have done all they can, suffering never entirely disappears from human life. Only in the light of faith can we find a satisfying answer to this problem of suffering.

The Lord Jesus invites all who suffer to enter more deeply into the mystery of his passion and death. In this way their suffering becomes united with his. It shares in his redemptive power, by which the world's sin is overcome and creation is restored and made new.

We accept human life as God's gift to us. Passing through death into eternal life is also God's gift. It is for God to determine the time.