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Colorado needs more compassionate care, not killing

In August 1997, I was in the oncologist office with my mother and her doctor. The doctor shared with us that my mother had cancer in her brain, lungs, and liver and while there was some possibility to prolong her life, her prognosis was she would die in a few months. On our way out, the doctor pulled me aside and said, “Your mother will be dead by December. I don’t know how she is doing so well with the extensiveness of the cancer.” She celebrated her 75th birthday in December at a large gathering of family and friends and was still driving. She didn’t die until June 1998.

On August 15, an initiative that will legalize physician-assisted suicide was officially certified to appear as an initiative on the Colorado ballot. Proposition 106 must be opposed because it will open the door for people in situations like my mother’s to kill themselves based off of guesses made by doctors that are often wrong. Having assisted suicide in our state will also create a culture that discourages advances in compassionate palliative and hospice care, and crucially, it will shorten the window for God’s grace to act as people prepare to meet their maker.

In Colorado, we pride ourselves on the natural beauty of our state and our care for the environment. People from other states also remark on how welcoming, warm and caring Coloradans are. These are good and praiseworthy values of which we can be proud. But if Proposition 106 is approved, it will engrain much different, more inhumane values in our culture, and help spread them to other states by giving momentum to assisted suicide advocates.

Aside from the moral problems associated with physician-assisted suicide, the ballot measure has serious flaws in the way it’s written. In order to qualify for assisted suicide, for instance, a person must receive a diagnosis that they are suffering from a terminal illness and have six months or less to live. But as the case of my mother shows, how often are those diagnoses wrong? Most of us know people who outlived a fatal diagnosis by months or years, and in some rarer cases doctors misdiagnose their patients completely.

Proposition 106 also requires that a physician certify that the person requesting assisted suicide be of sound mind. What the measure does not specify is that the certifying doctor be trained in psychology. That means that any doctor may carry out the assessment – even a podiatrist or audiologist. There is nothing in the initiative that would prevent a doctor who is untrained in psychology from missing the cues that a person is depressed and needs treatment, not an overdose of lethal drugs.

The way the assisted suicide ballot measure handles the act of a person killing themselves also demonstrates how contrary its values are to those of Coloradans. To begin with, even though the overdose doesn’t always work, Proposition 106 does not require a medical professional to be present for the death. It also shuns accountability by mandating that physicians or coroners lie on the death certificate and say that the person died of the disease from which they were suffering. Should this become law, the state will be supporting the “father of lies,” sweeping under the carpet the reality of what is happening.

The most important shortcoming of Proposition 106 is that it treats human life as something that can be discarded, like an appliance that has outlived its use. Human beings are vastly more valuable than that, and our dignity does not depend on our ability to perform functions or our health. Our dignity comes from the fact that a loving God made us in his image and likeness and gave us souls that are eternal. The state does not bestow dignity on a human person, God does.

As a priest, I have accompanied people in their last days, including both my parents, and seen the profound changes that can occur when a person is open to God’s love and mercy as they approach their earthly end. I have heard so many stories of families who were grateful for those last moments, which thanks to advances in medicine and hospice care, are not filled with pain.

However, if Proposition 106 is passed, it will create a system that has the potential to rob people of those cherished moments with their loved ones. It will also incentivize inhumane treatment by health insurance companies and people who stand to gain financially from the deaths of the sick, elderly, or disabled. For example, in Oregon, a woman with breast cancer was told by her insurance that it would not cover her chemotherapy, but would cover the pills for her to commit suicide, even though she was still in fairly good health.

In stark contrast to Proposition 106 and its values stands the testimony of Coloradan Miranda Smith, whose mom died naturally while receiving hospice care for brain cancer. “I wouldn’t give up those last moments of my mom up for anything in the world … seeing how in those last weeks, how family would come and she would touch them; I can’t imagine not having that.”

As Coloradans, we cannot allow our state to become the next suicide state. We must treat life with care, dignity and true compassion, instead of exposing it to the error-prone, unaccountable system that Proposition 106 would create. Vote “No” on physician-assisted suicide and help build a culture of life!

To contribute to the effort to defeat Proposition 106, please make checks out to No Assisted Suicide Colorado and mail it to 1535 Logan St., Denver, CO 80203. Donations are not tax-deductible.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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