Bishops Betrayed on Assisted Suicide

Even as the nation’s bishops react with alarm to a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling allowing physician-assisted suicide, their efforts are being undermined by ethics and law professors at several Jesuit universities.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement describing assisted suicide as “a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent”:

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With expanded funding from wealthy donors, assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message. If they succeed, society will undergo a radical change.

But as with so many moral issues, the bishops need look no further than our Catholic institutions to find that the “nationwide campaign” in opposition to Church teaching has been ongoing for many years.

Suicide’s legalization has been advocated by prominent professors in Catholic universities including Georgetown, Marquette, Santa Clara, and Boston College. It is a particular irony that the bishops’ statement comes this year, even as the bishops are quietly reviewing the implementation of Vatican guidelines for Catholic higher education in the 1990 constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The professors’ efforts came to light during a Cardinal Newman Society investigation in 2005, following news reports of a legal brief filed by 55 bioethicists in opposition to “Terri’s Law,” a Florida measure that empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to ensure that the comatose Terri Schiavo received water and nutrition. As reported in “Teaching Euthanasia,” an exclusive report in the June 2005 issue of Crisis, multiple professors at Catholic universities had taken positions on end-of-life issues that seemed to conflict with Vatican teaching.


Today, some of those professors are no longer teaching at Catholic universities, but others remain perched in Jesuit law schools and theology and philosophy departments.

Tom Beauchamp is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and a senior research scholar at the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics. He is a superstar in the ethics community, and in May he was honored with the Hastings Center’s Research Ethics Award for “a lifetime contribution to ethics and the life sciences.”

Beauchamp also received Georgetown’s Career Recognition Award in 2003 — even while he was serving on the board of directors of the Compassion in Dying Federation, which advocated Oregon’s “death with dignity” law and has fought prohibitions against assisted suicide in other states. He served on the board from 1999 until 2005, when the organization merged with End-of-Life Choices (the renamed Hemlock Society) to form Compassion and Choices.

The latter entity was singled out by the U.S. bishops last week for particular criticism: “Plain speaking is needed to strip away this veneer and uncover what is at stake, for this agenda promotes neither free choice nor compassion,” the bishops wrote.

Even in its prior incarnation, the Compassion in Dying Federation was significantly at odds with the Church. For instance, in 2004, it joined with the pro-abortion National Women’s Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholics for a Free Choice, NARAL, and other groups to demand that religiously sponsored hospitals notify patients whether they will honor patients’ refusal of artificial nutrition and hydration and requests for removal of life support.

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying and now its successor Compassion and Choices, has long described her battles as “autonomy” versus “dogma.” Autonomy is the mantra of the ethicists who support physician-assisted suicide — like Beauchamp, whose 2006 article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy celebrates “the right to die… [as] an impressive example of the triumph of autonomy in bioethics.” Describing Oregon’s legalization of suicide as the “latest stage” in this process, he predicts “it will take another thirty years to get matters settled in the other forty-nine states.”

Beauchamp’s Principles of Biomedical Ethics — first published in 1979 with co-author James Childress, and now in its sixth edition — has become a classic work that is used in many college-level ethics courses. It is also cited by the Compassion and Choices amicus brief to the Montana Supreme Court in support of its legalization of assisted suicide: “If a person freely authorizes death and makes an autonomous judgment that cessation of pain and suffering through death constitutes a personal benefit rather than a setback to his or her interests, then active aid-in-dying at the person’s request involves neither harming nor wrongdoing,” argue Beauchamp and Childress.

Beauchamp also organized the amicus brief signed by 42 bioethicists in Gonzales v. Oregon, arguing for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law.


Also at Georgetown is law professor Lawrence Gostin, a longtime advocate of physician-assisted suicide who told participants in a 1997 symposium at St. John’s University in New York (another Catholic institution):

Some of us may believe passionately in the sanctity of life. If a person holds this belief, he or she will choose not to expedite the natural dying process. Others, however, may believe that living in anguish is not meaningful. If a person holds this view, he or she may seek assistance in dying at some point. It should not matter which choice a person makes, provided that choice is free and informed.

In a more recent article — “Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Legitimate Medical Practice?” in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association — Gostin argues against federal efforts to restrict assisted suicide, as was attempted by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He chides President George W. Bush for lamenting the erosion of a “culture of life”: “However,” retorts Gostin, “deep caring and relief of suffering by physicians at the bedside of dying patients may be a far greater affirmation of life.”

Gostin twice joined amicus briefs defending Oregon’s law in Gonzales v. Oregon before serving as Georgetown Law’s associate dean for research and academic programs. He has since become a major player in health-care reform, co-directing Georgetown’s joint program on public health with Johns Hopkins University and directing the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights.

Another Georgetown signer to an amicus brief in support of Oregon’s assisted suicide law has likewise focused efforts in recent years on health-care reform. Law professor Maxwell Gregg Bloche co-directs the joint program on public health with Gostin and was a health-care advisor to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and transition team.

Bloche’s book published this year, The Hippocratic Myth: Why Doctors Have to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise Their Promise to Heal, is a broadside against the current health-care system in the United States. But he is also critical of the courts’ “intrusion into personal choice” when they uphold bans on physician-assisted suicide.


An attorney who sought the “mercy killing” of a disabled but allegedly functioning California man is today a “faculty scholar” at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the Jesuits’ Santa Clara University.

Fighting a challenge from the mother of Robert Wendland — who was severely disabled in a car accident in 1993 — Lawrence Nelson failed to convince the California Supreme Court to permit the removal of Wendland’s feeding tube. Wendland’s mother, Florence, presented evidence that Robert was not in a “persistent vegetative state” but could occasionally make limited movements, like writing the letter R. Nelson has since argued that “this was no life for Robert, no life he would ever want. The only experiences he seemed to have were negative.”

Not surprisingly, Nelson has also advocated the legalization of assisted suicide. In 1996, he joined an amicus brief in Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, arguing that “the right of competent, dying patients to physician-assisted suicide is a negative right to be free from state interference.”

At Santa Clara University, Nelson has continued to work on end-of-life issues. In a Hastings Center Report article this year with significant application to the assisted-suicide debate, Nelson and co-author Brendan Ashby argue that doctors should have the freedom to decide whether they wish to participate in lethal injections for criminals who are condemned to death — a practice opposed by leading medical associations because it violates the mandate to heal and do no harm.

Nelson also delves into other issues in opposition to Catholic teaching. In a 2005 article on embryonic stem cell research for The American Journal of Bioethics, Nelson and fellow Santa Clara professor Michael Meyer argue for “the intermediate moral status of embryos” between the “extreme views” of full moral status and none at all. In 2003, the Markkula Center provided Nelson a grant to develop “a theory of constitutional personhood.” Perhaps resulting from that work, Nelson’s 2008 paper, “Of Persons and Prenatal Humans,” argues that the dubious personhood of “unborn humans” means that abortion must be protected by the U.S. Constitution:

The ascription of constitutional personhood to unborn humans results in women losing their fundamental rights to maintain bodily integrity and refuse medical treatment, to exercise autonomy over the conduct of their daily lives as all other persons, and to avoid subordination of their vital interests in order to preserve the interests of another. …This Article argues that the only way to avoid this anomaly is not to regard prenatal humans as constitutional persons.

Marquette University theologian Daniel Maguire shares a similar interest in both abortion advocacy and assisted suicide. The U.S. bishops publicly denounced Maguire in 2007 for promoting “false teaching” on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, but the scolding did not address his views on end-of-life issues.

In 1974, Maguire wrote the book Death by Choice, as well as an article for the Atlantic Monthly in which he argued:

The present categories of the law do not encompass the realities involved in death by choice, that is… one’s own death or the death of another is opted for in preference to continued living. …The motives for these deaths are compassion and an unselfish desire to bring on death when continued living is unbearable for the patient due to physical and/or mental suffering. Mercy killings thus described do not fit into any of the categories of unjustifiable homicide available in American law.

In 2009, Maguire testified before the Wisconsin Medical Society in support of a resolution approving physician-assisted suicide and calling on the state legislature to legalize the practice in a manner similar to Oregon. He did so in his capacity as a Marquette professor and president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, a nonprofit organization that publicly disputes Catholic moral teaching.


One of the leading advocates for physician-assisted suicide has taught at the Jesuits’ Boston College Law School for almost 40 years — though Charles “Buzzy” Baron has just retired and will be a visiting professor at Roger Williams University School of Law next school year.

The “right to die” is a primary focus for Baron, who serves on the board of directors of the Oregon Death With Dignity Political Action Fund. He authored the law professors’ amicus brief in the Supreme Court cases Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg and helped develop model legislation to legalize assisted suicide, which has become the basis for advocacy efforts in several states. He has joined other amicus briefs, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and Britain’s House of Lords, and lectured in support of assisted suicide.

Baron charges many opponents of assisted suicide with “paternalism on avowedly religious grounds”:

In some religious systems, suicide is forbidden under all circumstances — even if it is to avoid unbearable suffering while facing imminent death from a terminal disease. Certainly, those who wish to follow such religious precepts by bravely bearing a long and painful dying process should have the right to do so — whether or not society believes it is good for them. On the other hand, why shouldn’t those who are not so committed have the same right to decide what is best for themselves?

While Baron’s efforts will no doubt continue, at least Catholics can be assured that he will no longer abuse his platform at a Catholic institution. We can hope that, in the coming years, as the bishops’ stand against assisted suicide is strengthened, other professors will retire and we will see a decline in right-to-die advocacy from our Catholic campuses.

But why does it happen in the first place? Certainly Baron was clear about his association with a Catholic university, even while he actively opposed the Church on fundamental moral issues. Was there no pushback at Boston College? No question about his commitment to the mission of the university?

Baron and the others cited here (there are more, of course) have done more than betray the Catholic Church when they advocated assisted suicide from their platforms at Jesuit universities. Their primary credentials are (or were) as Jesuit university professors. Their participation in academic societies and symposia and journals has depended on their teaching and research positions at major universities. When dealing with ethical issues, no doubt their affiliation with Catholic universities has opened many doors.

In no small way, then, Catholic universities are partly responsible for such professors’ influence by virtue of their employment. Academic freedom protects professors’ rights to seek truth according to the methods of their discipline. But when professors deny the truths of faith and disregard the common good — especially of those whose lives are snuffed out prematurely — they violate the mission of a Catholic university.

That’s of grave concern, of course, when Catholic universities truly value their mission. And there’s the rub.


  • Patrick J. Reilly

    Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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