By Mary McClusky

May 13, 2011

There’s a certain irony in the Washington state location of the Animal Hospice End of Life Project (AHELP). The organization, with a network of volunteers, provides assistance for pets with special needs, palliative (pain-relieving) care, and hospice. There’s no doubt that pets make wonderful companions, and they should receive suitable care. Yet ironically, Washington State is one of only two states that have legalized assisted suicide for human beings, offering death rather than proper medical care. Both Washington and neighboring Oregon have shown a policy preference for offering to give people lethal pills instead of providing more costly measures to care for the lives of patients with a terminal disease.  A brief look at the current legal situation and review of Catholic teaching on end-of-life care helps to set the right balance of priorities.

Physician-assisted suicide is generally accomplished through a drug overdose, using pills prescribed by a doctor for the purpose of suicide. Oregon became the first state to legalize such activity in 1994. In 2008 Washington State followed suit. Montana is currently considering legislation that would enable doctors to facilitate such killing. Euthanasia, carried out against another person, is “an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering.” The Church teaches that euthanasia is murder and an offense against God and the dignity of the human person.

Catholic teaching recognizes the God-given dignity of every human life from conception to natural death. “We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners,

When members of the human family are at risk of being eliminated because public authorities regard them as financially or emotionally burdensome, we are called to proclaim their inestimable worth. In the autumn of life when those who are elderly, sick or dying are most tempted to fear being a burden to others, they are most in need of protection, care, and comfort.

Medicine plays a huge role in ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society are met. Traditional hospice has been around for decades, and the rapidly developing field of palliative care—which provides pain relief, emotional support, and assistance meeting basic needs—has become increasingly available.

It’s fine to improve care for pets, but society’s more important challenge is to improve care for people rather than putting them at risk of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Answering the call of Catholic teaching to encourage palliative care is a great start. For resources on assisted suicide and euthanasia, visit

Mary McClusky is Special Projects Coordinator at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, go to

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