FAQs on Assisted Suicide and the Sacraments

Beginning in 2017, it is legal for Colorado doctors to write a suicide prescription for a consenting person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with six months or less to live.

As disciples of Our Lord, we know that suicide is a rejection of life, which is a gift from God. It also contradicts our natural inclination to self-preservation, and it contradicts the way Jesus Christ accepted death.

As we encounter loved ones in our families, parishes and communities who are considering Physician-Assisted Suicide, here are some guidelines developed by the bishops of Colorado on how to address this critical end-of-life issue in the context of our Catholic faith.

Q: What should I do if I know someone planning to use Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS)?

A: This person has decided to end his life and has convinced himself that he should reject God’s timeline for it. It is important to approach him compassionately, seeking to accompany him in his difficulties through listening, offering practical help with daily activities and directing him toward spiritual, medical and mental health resources. At the appropriate time, encouragement to reject PAS and embrace God’s plan for their life should also be given.

Q: How should I approach someone who is encouraging a relative to use PAS?

A: Seek to first understand why this person is encouraging PAS. Most often, people encouraging PAS are guided by a sense of false compassion and do not understand that it is spiritually damaging, undermines society’s perception of the value of life, and involves sectors of society in taking life (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, coroners, etc.). After striving to understand the person and explain the Catholic beliefs about life, suffering and eternity, try to encourage him to confess his sin and remedy the damage he has done.

Q: Can a person who has requested PAS receive Anointing of the Sick?

A: No. The Anointing of the Sick is aimed at strengthening the sick person in their trust of God, but PAS contradicts this radical surrender and entrusting of the sick person to God. Until a person has satisfactorily confessed the sin of intending to commit PAS, they cannot receive the Anointing of the Sick.

Q: Can someone who has taken the PAS drugs receive the sacraments?

A: On average, a person who takes the fatal overdose used in PAS falls into a medical coma within 5 minutes. In the unlikely scenario that a priest arrives at the bedside of a person in this window and she is repentant, then the priest can hear her Confession and administer the Last Rites.

Q: If someone discloses that they intend to use PAS in Confession what can be done?

A: If a penitent is not contrite and insists on killing himself, then the priest must delay granting him absolution until a later time. Meanwhile, the priest should accompany the person planning to use PAS, striving to convince him of God’s mercy, offering him practical help, and engaging in fasting, prayer and offering sacrifices for them.

Q: Can people who have died by PAS have a Funeral Mass?

A: Due to the significant risk of a Funeral Mass leading people to think the Church accepts PAS, the bishops of Colorado have decided to only allow Christian Burial for those who have committed PAS. Funeral Masses, Liturgies of the Word and paraliturgies are not permitted. Some days after the burial, loved ones are encouraged to have Masses said for the repose of the soul of the deceased.

End-of-life Resources

The organizations listed below offer counseling for those struggling with the issues raised by terminal illness, such as a loss of autonomy, a perceived decrease in the quality of life, coping with grief and loss, and the impact of illness on family members.
• Regina Caeli Clinical Services is a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver and has multiple locations. For more info visit www.ccdenver.org/reginacaeli or call 720-377-1359.
• St. Raphael Counseling is a Catholic apostolate with offices in Denver, Littleton and Louisville. For more info visit www.straphaelcounseling.com or call 720-675-7796.

Catholic Hospice and Palliative Care
The medical facilities and services listed below are provided in accordance with Catholic teaching.
• Porter Hospice & St. Anthony Hospice serve the Denver Metro area. For more info visit www.centurahealthathome.org/CHH/Home or call 303-561-5100 for hospice care. To learn about Centura’s in-home palliative care services, call 303-561-5193.
• Collier Hospice Center in Wheat Ridge, Good Samaritan Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital all provide hospice and palliative care. For more info visit www.sclhealth.org/services/hospice or call 303-425-8000.

COMING UP: Catholic health networks opt-out of physician-assisted suicide law

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Local Catholic hospitals are exercising their right to opt-out of participating in the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act—known during the election cycle as Proposition 106—which legalizes physician-assisted suicide in Colorado.

The aid-in-dying law contains a conscience clause, which allows doctors and providers to opt-out of writing a prescription for life-ending medication.

Citing this clause, three of Colorado’s major health networks — SCL Health, Centura, which are both faith-based, and HealthONE, which is not — have announced that they will not participate in assisted suicide. In total, these three networks account for nearly one-third of Colorado’s hospitals.

What this looks like for each of the networks varies slightly; in the case of SCL Health, it means that doctors and providers employed by its hospitals and clinics are prohibited from administering life-ending prescriptions to patients seeking physician-assisted suicide.

“SCL Health caregivers will continue to provide other requested end-of-life and palliative care services to patients and families,” the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth health system issued in a statement on its website. “Any of our patients wishing to request medical aid-in-dying medication will be offered an opportunity to transfer to another facility of the patient’s choice.”

SCL Health, which oversees Good Samaritan Medical Center, St. Joseph Hospital, Lutheran Hospital and a dozen other hospitals and clinics, is a faith-based, Catholic health network, as is Centura Health, which issued a statement of its own.

“Centura Health has a long tradition of believing in the sanctity of life, extending compassionate care and relieving suffering,” it said. “As permitted by the statute, Centura Health has opted out of participating in the Colorado End-of-Life Options act.”

The hospital network said in the statement that it will continue to provide “palliative care, hospice care, spiritual care services and mental health services, so patients and their families may live with dignity until the patient’s time of death.”

The Denver Post reported that the physicians at HealthONE are allowed to speak with its patients about aid-in-dying and write prescriptions for life-ending drugs, but hospital pharmacies will not fill those prescriptions, and patients are not allowed to take the medication within the walls of the hospital.

Not everyone agrees that these new policies are legal.

In an interview with Stat News, Compassion & Choices national director of policy and programs Kat West said, “From what we’ve seen, it appears that Centura’s and SCL’s policies go beyond what is allowed under the law,” and commented that a legal challenge is “a distinct possibility.”

Other health networks, such as UCHealth, have stated that it will allow its doctors to write life-ending prescriptions, so long as the patient meets the requirements outlined in the law.

As of this writing, Catholic Health Initiatives, which has its headquarters in Englewood and operates 104 hospitals in 18 states, has not issued a policy on the End-of-Life Options Act.

Featured image by Daniel Petty