As states around the country consider legalizing physician-assisted suicide, “death with dignity” looks markedly different for patients under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. In her 27 years with the order that cares for the “elderly poor,” Sister Constance Veit, L.S.P. says she has never seen or heard a patient asking for a lethal prescription. “I think that’s because they are surrounded with a caring human and spiritual presence in our homes,” she told an audience at the Heritage Foundation. Sister Constance was part of a recent panel in Washington, D.C., on caring respectfully for the elderly sick. The event was titled “Living Life to Its Fullest.” End of life care was placed in the national spotlight late last year, when 29 year-old Brittany Maynard publically announced her decision to take a lethal prescription rather than suffer terminal cancer. In describing her situation, Maynard used terms that Sister Constance says she has never heard from the patients under her care, like “purposeless prolonged pain” and “prolonged involuntary suffering and shame.” “I have never heard any of our residents use the word ‘shame’ in the context of their suffering and dying,” she said. Maynard’s story caught the attention of many and brought about a national debate on physician-assisted suicide, which is already legal in some states. The Colorado state senate defeated an assisted suicide bill back in February, but other states are considering similar bills. The Death With Dignity National Center is pushing for these laws around the country. Critics say the laws would unfairly pressure the elderly and disabled to end their lives. They charge such laws would normalize suicide as a solution to problems and decrease respect for life in American culture. Caring for the elderly in their final days, the Little Sisters of the Poor say that a patient and his or her loved ones can experience a tremendous amount of good in their last days together that would be lost if they decided to take their life prematurely. Patients of the Little Sisters are cared for and pain is relieved — all that can be done for the sick patient is attempted. The patient is accompanied around the clock. “I would say that the room of a dying person almost becomes the spiritual center of our house at that point for those days,” Sister Constance said. “Our home is their home.” The sisters make sure to provide a “peaceful, prayerful presence” for the dying patient “for as long as it takes until they make that passage from this life to the next.” And it can be a rich time of healing for the family. Sister Constance recalled how the sisters kept an eight-day vigil for one dying woman. Although she was not conscious, members of her family reconciled with each other during that time, and some even came back to the faith who had fallen away. “There’s so much to be shared, learned, and gained through these intense moments that you cheat people out of when a life is ended prematurely,” the sister reflected. “The majority of the family members involved with the residents who pass away in our homes experience it as a moment of grace and a thing of beauty,” she added, “it’s rare that they feel it was anything other than a very powerful spiritual and human moment.” Other members of the panel voiced concerns about physician-assisted suicide laws. Farr A. Curlin, M.D., the Josiah C. Trent Professor of Medical Humanities at Duke University School of Medicine, said the laws will bring new and grotesque questions to the national conversation. People might start asking a terminally-ill patient, “Why are you staying alive?” he said. Those patients might start feeling useless to society and will “feel the pressure to exit the scene.”
Catholic News Agency was founded in 2004, in response to Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a “New Evangelization." It is an apostolate of EWTN News.