Catholic Herald Staff
Connie Roe, parishioner at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Stetsonville, remembers sitting on the floor arm-in-arm with her twin sister Catherine, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer almost 20 years ago. The first question darkening her mind was whether or not her sister, who had fallen away from practicing her faith, would consider taking her own life in the face of a tragic diagnosis.
On Jan. 14, Roe participated in an event at the Medford public library organized by the Taylor County chapter of Wisconsin Right to Life. The event featured a documentary called “Fatal Flaws: Legalizing Assisted Death,” produced by the Canada-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.
In the film, producer Kevin Dunn speaks with medical, legal and academic personnel from the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. He shares interviews with proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide who believe people should have the right to choose how and when they die, as well as conversations with the practice’s critics. Those in opposition say choice is an illusion and a recipe for elder abuse and coercion when people are at their most vulnerable.
For Roe, whose conversation with her sister included the reassurance that “I’m gonna be with you through this whole thing,” the film’s topic is one she passionately connects with. She didn’t paint a rosy picture of her sister’s choice for treatment – during which her husband died of an unexpected stroke, and at the end of which her 3-year-old son was orphaned – but called it a beautiful experience of love and support, a process through which Catherine re-encountered her faith and hope for heaven, received care and comfort measures through hospice in her sister’s home, and watched her son begin a new life he would continue as her sister’s adopted son.
“She was so happy,” Roe said. She shared how they hugged in those moments after sharing the diagnosis and how her sister assured she would not take her own life, and the the twin laments living still in a society that sees suffering as something to be avoided at all costs.
The film’s title “Fatal Flaws” highlights the word “law” within “flaws” by contrasting red letters among black. In many of Dunn’s interviews, the various forms of legislative language are addressed.
Speaking with Dr. Robert Jonquiere, executive director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, he noted since the Netherlands first legalized assisted suicide in 2002, the percentage of people seeking death due to terminal physical illness has enormously decreased.
Laws have been expanding the terms of qualification from the terminally ill to now include those suffering from “psychiatric and existential” situations. The number of non-terminally ill patients seeking physician-assisted suicide has tripled since the law was first passed. In addition, numerous end-of-life clinics have opened for patients as a second chance of finding their death wishes fulfilled, if their general practitioners and/or specialists do not believe they qualify.
The vital role of language is addressed as Dunn speaks with persons on both sides of the debate in the United States, particularly in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal since 1997.
Euthanasia is distinguished from assisted suicide. The former is defined as doctor-administered lethal dose; the latter, as doctor-prescribed death-inducing drugs patients take themselves.
The documentary shared multiple personal stories and named many euphemisms. One Oregon doctor, who is also a professor emeritus, questioned “death with dignity.” His own wife died of cancer, although she lived four years longer than her initial prognosis. He asked what her natural death process should be called, when “taking a massive overdose of medicine to kill yourself is considered death with dignity.”
Peg Sandeen, PhD, MSW, executive director of Death with Dignity in Portland, OR, described a typical suicide as “violent and irrational.” She differentiated that from “death with dignity … which is very different because of the rational decision-making process” with the goal of controlling the timing and manner of a person’s own inevitable dying.
Woven throughout the documentary is the topic of language. Lawyers and doctors interviewed for the film alluded to the manipulation of people’s understanding of the issues through redefinition of terms.
Oregon internal medicine specialist Charles Bentz told Dunn, “All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering … If you can change the words, you can change how people think about it.”
Roe, who was pleased with the event’s turnout of 12 attendees, drew a parallel with the legalization of abortion and its acceptance through similar language manipulation. She and others working locally with Right to Life see the importance of education on this new front of the culture of death.
The Catholic Herald spoke with Alex Schadenberg, international chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, while he was in Washington, D.C. for the March for Life.
Referencing some articles he had written, Schadenberg disclosed that current legislative attempts are seeking to have assisted suicide considered part of the continuum of palliative care. He said those in favor of further expansion believe, based on the law’s longevity in Oregon and passage of similar laws in other states, Americans are ready for wider acceptance.
His organization offers education and resources that clarify what assisted suicide is and what it is not. He said it is not a question of autonomy, freedom or choice; rather, “It is about a doctor or somebody else gaining the right of law to assist me in my suicide.”
Admitting to the effects of these semantics, he referred to Peg Sandeen’s interview in the documentary. He said, “Violence doesn’t define suicide per se,” and clarified these laws permit actions that involve the medical establishment in “helping” a suffering person to end his or her life, maintaining that suicide is defined by the taking of one’s own life, whatever the means and circumstances.
“I shouldn’t use the word ‘help’,” Schadenberg said; “They are involved with abandoning the person in their most vulnerable time of life.”
Since establishing the EPC in 1999, the founder sees two reasons why assisted suicide legalization has been so accepted.
“We have been inundated with stories … designed effectively to brainwash,” he said specifically referring to the highly publicized Brittany Maynard case. He explained the storyline was used to highlight a compassionate, chosen end at the end of a tragedy she did not choose or want. He cited the selling point of assisted suicide as an end to someone’s physical pain in a terminal illness.
But he believes there is more to it than that.
“Very few actually ask for assisted suicide because of uncontrolled pain,” Schadenberg stated. Schadenberg also appears in the “Fatal Flaws” film. To this point of embracing assisted suicide as a means of eliminating suffering, he argues, “We can eliminate suffering without killing people.” He spoke of the medical advancements of palliative care and giving patients “good support, not lethal drugs.”
Alluding to the “natural reality that we all fear death, that we all fear suffering,” the Canadian added that statistics show for most, the hinge reality for someone seeking assisted suicide is a social question. “They feel they’re a burden on somebody, they feel loss of autonomy, they feel their life has lost purpose or value and they also fear future possible suffering,” he said.
He confirmed the film was intentionally produced without a religious slant. As such, the argument against legalizing lethal overdoses is not made from a moral or religious standpoint. The film “is designed for a secular audience,” Schadenberg said. He sees the need to acknowledge and speak to the cultural shift towards more secular and progressive mindsets.
Even within the liberal society of the Netherlands, the film showed some of the questions being raised regarding the “slippery slope” of their longstanding legislation and societal acceptance of the practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The “other side sells this as keeping it (physician-assisted suicide) controlled – it’s not about that,” Schadenberg said. “When you read the laws, you understand it it is about giving the physician the right of law to cause my death, and that is not ever a good thing,” he emphasized.
Schadenberg’s call is to “up our game and speak of and to human experience.
“As people of faith we’re challenged by this – we recognize that people are alone and lonely and going through difficult times. How are we then going to respond to them? Are we going to care for them? Are we going to be with them?”
He challenges film viewers and supporters of his cause to be willing to accompany someone on the uncomfortable journey of psychological pain and terminal illness.
“My interaction, my caring, my being with them might be the answer to them saying, ‘my life has value,’” he said.
Connie Roe testified to this through personal experience, both accompanying her sister through illness and death, as well as support she has received in her own personal struggle with depression. Love and joy were her two descriptions.
She referred to the documentary’s focus on the shift in understanding of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients to include those with brain illnesses. “If I have a culture around me that says, ‘if you have this, why don’t you just take your life,’ it sure makes me feel much more vulnerable to it.”
Reaffirming the ever-more common reality of depression, she acknowledged that “sometimes when you’re in thick of (it), it doesn’t seem like you’ll ever get out…
“It needs to be accepted as another condition. (Depression is) treatable – people need to know it’s treatable. But the more you isolate and feel like there is no help … a culture of death tells you you don’t have to keep suffering like this.”
She added that with the increasing resources, medications and therapy available, society needs to stop offering controlled suicide as a viable option to end the suffering.
Roe’s conclusion? “We need to be getting into the meat of it, which is to start being human to each other and start responding to people’s pain. That’s really what’s important.”
Writer’s Note: More information about the film is available at fatalflawsfilm.com. Learn more about the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition at alexschadenberg.blogspot.com.