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”:
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.
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