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After a year of physician-assisted suicide in New Jersey, Bishop James F. Checchio says Catholics should not be complacent in respect for all life

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Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, N.J., is seen in this 2016 photo. In response to the Aug. 1, 2020, anniversary of legalization of physician-assisted suicide in New Jersey, the bishop urged Catholics to stay anchored in "unconditional respect for human life." (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

METUCHEN, N.J. (CNS) — More than a year after the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act took effect in New Jersey, Catholics in the Metuchen Diocese continue to oppose the law, which allows terminally ill state residents to end their lives.

“We cannot be complacent and just accept that physician-assisted suicide is the law now in our state,” said Metuchen Bishop James F. Checchio. “When any human life, especially the weakest, is devalued by society it promotes a devaluing of all human life.”

He reminded Catholics in the diocese their shared responsibility to respect all human life “is the same foundation of our belief and our efforts to eliminate racism from our midst.”

Bishop Checchio, who cited a Christian’s duty to care for the sick and dying, said inherent abuses of laws like this one instead often make the sick and elderly feel they have a duty to die, a feeling which has been “exacerbated over recent months by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The pandemic has brought a raft of new stressors, including loss of community and social isolation, that have been especially difficult for the elderly and the sick, and for their families, he said. “Sadly, some reports indicate a rise in suicides as well as an increase in requests for medically-assisted death.”

[From Aug. 27, 2019: New Jersey appeals court lifts ban on physician-assisted suicide law]

The law permits competent New Jersey residents with a terminal diagnosis of six months or less to live to seek permission from two doctors to end their lives with a lethal prescription. The law requires that patients must administer the drug to themselves. Attending physicians are required to offer other treatment options, including palliative care.

To mark the Aug. 1 anniversary of the passing of the law, the state Department of Health issued a report that included data from the first five months the law was in effect.

According to the report, a total of 12 New Jersey residents — six men and six women — ended their lives under the provisions of the new law between Aug. 1, 2019, when the law went into effect, and Dec. 31. The report revealed those who ended their lives were mostly white (11), college-educated people (10), with 59% having cancer (7) as the underlying illness.

Data regarding the total number of requests for assisted suicide and the total number of lethal prescriptions written during that time were not included in the report.

[From Nov. 18, 2019: Euthanasia expert Alex Schadenberg warns of another physician-assisted suicide push in Delaware legislature]

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Catholic, signed the bill into law, making New Jersey the seventh state allowing assisted suicide. After the law took effect, a Superior Court judge put it on hold Aug. 14, 2019. Less than two weeks later a pair of judges on a New Jersey state appeals court allowed the law to resume.

“In the face of these trying times, our need for compassionate care is more important than ever,” said Bishop Checchio. “We are now challenged with finding creative new ways to provide tender accompaniment for those who are sick or near the end of life so that no one feels compelled to choose assisted suicide.”

For months, the bishop said, New Jersey residents have heard about the “precious souls” lost as a result of COVID-19. The number of deaths, particularly those in nursing homes, have been “especially disturbing,” he said.

“Everyone has been called upon to sacrifice and to do their part in slowing the spread of this deadly virus,” said the Metuchen bishop. “To help save lives, we are urged, even mandated, to wear masks and practice social distancing.”

Yet, he said, it is ironic that while the state is focused on saving lives, they have lost too many because of state-sanctioned physician-assisted suicide.

“We believe that all life is a gift from God and that every person has inherent and inalienable dignity because we are made in God’s image and likeness — young or old, healthy or sick, all human life is precious,” said Bishop Checchio.

He called on the faithful and all people of good will to always anchor themselves in an unconditional respect for all human life and to surround the elderly and sick with love, support, and companionship — either in-person or virtually — to help “ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering.”

“We count on our faithful and all people of goodwill to join in this effort to make our state one we can be proud to be a part of and we recommit ourselves to join with others in our state to do all that we can to proclaim the truth that every life is sacred,” he said.

[From Feb. 26, 2020: Marchers in Annapolis protest bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Maryland]