December 3, 2016

Organizations join forces to further palliative care, oppose physician-assisted suicide

Despite the withdrawal of a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide earlier this year, state and national organizations including the Catholic Health Association of Minnesota and the Minnesota Catholic Conference continue to have concerns about the issue’s status in Minnesota.

With the aim of defending the ill and elderly against what they see as misguided and harmful policy, they’ve joined forces to create the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare. The 34 organizations partnering in the new coalition seek to further palliative care for the ill and elderly in addition to preventing physician-assisted suicide. Sixty-seven doctors have also joined the coalition. Palliative care seeks to comfort the whole person in a time of serious illness.

“A number of recent studies have shown patients who have their symptoms controlled and are able to communicate their emotional needs, have a better experience with their medical care,” said Toby Pearson, executive director of the Catholic Health Association of Minnesota.

Palliative care supports a person’s psychological and spiritual needs in addition to his or her physical suffering. The care also helps patients’ families cope with their loved one’s suffering.

“It’s starting to be covered more by most insurance plans, Medicare and Medicaid included,” Pearson said. “As the word starts to get out more and more, folks are starting to turn to it.”

The Catholic Health Association supports Catholic healthcare providers in embracing tenants of Catholic social teaching, which rejects any form of suicide.

In addition to the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which works to further the common good in the civic arena on behalf of the state’s bishops, Catholic coalition partners include Benedictine Health System, Curatio Apostolate of Catholic Healthcare Professionals, Catholic Medical Association diocesan guilds, the Knights of Columbus Minnesota State Council and the University of St. Thomas Prolife Center.

Other partners include the Human Life Alliance, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture, Gianna Homes and other organizations serving the elderly and disabled. Lutheran and Muslim organizations are also members.

The coalition was formed in response to the Compassionate Care Act, introduced in the State Legislature this year to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The author withdrew the bill in March after a Senate hearing that included emotional testimony from the husband of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who gained national attention in 2014 when she ended her life with doctor-prescribed drugs.

While a Republican-controlled Legislature may mean similar so-called “death with dignity” or “right to die” legislation won’t advance in the near future, coalition members are working to educate others about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide and the benefits of palliative care.

“Hopefully this year, we’ll be introducing some legislation that tries to improve palliative care and how its done in Minnesota,” Pearson said.

Nineteen years after Oregon became the first state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide, similar laws have been passed elsewhere in the United States. Colorado legalized the practice in the past election, and Washington D.C. is also on track to approve it. It is also legal in California, Montana, Vermont and Washington.

Pearson said changing the state’s culture will require “a longer-term conversation in the community about what is real care through life’s journey and how do we do end of life care better rather than simply turning to assisted suicide as the answer.”

According to its website, the MN Alliance for Ethical Healthcare affirms: “Assisted suicide can target and devalue people who most deserve our assistance and compassion: those with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income individuals; government should find ways to prioritize proper treatment and management of pain, not find ways for people to kill themselves; allowing medical professionals to prescribe lethal drugs damages the patient-provider relationship; palliative care is a proven way to relieve pain and provide comfort; [and] Minnesota should always prioritize care rather than hasten death.”

People can get involved in the coalition by visiting