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Robust pain management, emotional and spiritual support offer alternatives to suicide

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Catholic News Service

MC Sullivan has heard all of the arguments in favor of assisted suicide.

“There are arguments that would touch anyone with a heart,” said the director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. “They are couched in emotional language, emotional stories and the reality of a human being who is suffering unbearably.”

In this April 19, 2011, file photo, patient Warren Saunders smiles as Dominican Sister Agnes Mary plays the piano at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home there that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. The Catholic Church's main weapon against assisted suicide rests in "robust palliative care," said MC Sullivan, director of the Archdiocese of Boston's Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Warren Saunders smiles as Dominican Sister Agnes Mary plays the piano at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home there that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. The Catholic Church’s main weapon against assisted suicide rests in “robust palliative care,” said MC Sullivan, director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Sullivan, a registered nurse and attorney who holds a master’s degree in bioethics from Harvard Divinity School, nevertheless spends her days articulating the Catholic Church’s stand against assisted suicide and promoting the pain relief and emotional, physical and spiritual support system that are part of palliative care.

Assisted suicide is promoted as “a literal and figurative last resort” for those who are dying, she said. Its supporters rely on patients’ and their family members’ “fear of the pain that they are told is coming,” as well as their fears of becoming dependent on others or experiencing a loss of their dignity.

“The day that those arguments don’t touch us is a day we have to worry about ourselves,” Sullivan said.

“But there are other realities that I think we lose sight of when we engage with those realities and those fears,” she said. “Life is a joyous and wonderful gift and it is not ours to do with as we will.”

Sullivan was serving as director of ethics for Covenant Health in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, in 2012 and joined with the Archdiocese of Boston and other organizations in a coalition that narrowly defeated a ballot question that would have allowed assisted suicide in the commonwealth.

Under Massachusetts law, when a ballot question is defeated it cannot be put on the ballot again until six years later. But that has not kept proponents of assisted suicide from bringing up the matter in the legislature and trying to influence public opinion.

“We hoped the issue would go away, but that has not been the case,” she said.

When Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston decided to open a new office on palliative care in 2015, Sullivan was his choice to lead the initiative, believed to be the only archdiocesan agency in the nation with such a charge.

Compassion & Choices, a leading proponent of assisted suicide in the United States formerly known as the Hemlock Society, presents its arguments in terms of individual autonomy, free choice and “better end-of-life options,” Sullivan said. But “it’s not about end-of-life care choices,” she added. “It’s about ending life.”

The church’s main weapon against assisted suicide rests in “robust palliative care,” she said, describing it as “a comprehensive model of being with and caring for someone with a serious, life-limiting illness.”

Sometimes confused with hospice care, palliative care is not only for those close to death and can begin at any stage of an illness, Sullivan said. It also includes effective pain management and encompasses all of the family members and friends involved as caregivers for the patient, “the people who are your people.”

Palliative care is “patient-centered and family-oriented,” she added.

Sullivan said anyone with a life-limiting illness can reach the point of letting go of the fears associated with death if they have help with pain management and handling of the “practical considerations” sometimes associated with an illness.

“I know how fearful letting go can be,” she said. “But at the same time there can also be an amazing richness of experience of loving and being loved that happens in states of serious illness.”

Surveys nationwide have shown that the vast majority of Americans are not interested in participating in an assisted suicide or even in talking about it, Sullivan said.

“Even its proponents will tell us that it just for a small part of the population,” she added. “So why has it become a matter for public policy, which is meant to be applied broadly? That’s turning it on its head.”

 

O’Brien is retired deputy editor of CNS and is freelance book review editor for CNS.