Fighting the false ‘choice’ of physician-assisted suicide in Minnesota

4 mins read
Jason Adkins
Jason Adkins, executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, is pictured in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Jason Adkins)

One of the many significant ethical battles the Church faces today is responding to an increased call for physician-assisted suicide, also known as physician-assisted killing. Jason Adkins, an attorney who serves as the executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, spoke with OSV News’ Charlie Camosy about effectively responding to this push, both in his state and on a national level.

Charlie Camosy: I’m in the process of writing a book for OSV Press which names our current moment as “on the brink” when it comes to physician-assisted killing (PAK). There are so many battlegrounds right now. One of the key ones was in Minnesota. Can you give us a bit of the recent history there and what happened with this legislative session?

Jason Adkins: Legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature every year since 2015. Until this year, the bill, which mutates each cycle, had not even received even one committee vote. The 2024 legislative session, which concluded in May, saw the furthest advancement of such legislation to date. The bill, H. F. 1930, was heard in four separate House committees: Health Policy and Finance, Judiciary and Civil Law, Public Safety, and Commerce. The bill was not, however, brought to a full House vote, and its companion bill in the Senate, S.F. 1813, did not receive any hearings.

The legislation did not have the votes to pass even a legislature in which both houses are controlled by Democrats. And Democratic Gov. Tim Walz clarified that he did not have a position on the bill.

If enacted, this year’s bill would have been one of the most extreme in the country. It would have required all medical doctors to inform patients diagnosed with a terminal illness and a life expectancy of fewer than six months about the option to end their life through assisted suicide. The bill lacks adequate conscience protections for doctors who find this mandate contrary to their beliefs about the proper practice of medicine. Additionally, the bill stipulates that of the two medical professionals who need to approve a request for assisted suicide, only one must be a medical doctor.

Notably, the proposal does not mandate a mental health evaluation before a patient receives a lethal prescription from their doctor. And it lacks adequate safeguards against, among other things, elder abuse.

Camosy: Some think of opposition to PAK as coming from people who identify as religious conservatives. How does what happened in Minnesota sit with that assumption? What implications does your answer have for the role that the Church — all things being equal — should play?

Adkins: The issue of physician-assisted suicide transcends faith or political ideology. Many Minnesotans, regardless of their political views, see assisted suicide as a dangerous practice with the potential to cause more harm than it aims to alleviate. The Minnesota Catholic Conference helps lead a diverse coalition, the MN Alliance for Ethical health care, which includes over 50 organizations from various sectors such as religious, medical, legal, disability rights, and hospice and palliative care, along with thousands of individual supporters from all backgrounds.

Minnesota’s experience provides valuable lessons for other states. By bringing together organizations from various sectors, we have been able to present a united front that appeals to a wide range of political and personal beliefs. This inclusivity strengthens our position and highlights that the opposition to physician-assisted suicide is not solely a religious stance but a comprehensive ethical concern. Other states can learn from our approach by building similar coalitions and emphasizing education on end-of-life care.

Assisted suicide is an “option” most people want only when they feel like they have no other choice. Our message instead focuses on creating a healthcare policy ecosystem that creates more choices for people at the end of life and works to ensure that all people — including the poor, those with disabilities and the chronically ill — have access to the care they need. In the state with some of the best health care in the world, let’s create better options for people instead of abandoning them to assisted suicide. As our doctor allies say, patients are asking us to take their hand, not their life.

For their part, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota emphasize the importance of catechesis on end-of-life care and ethics so that we effectively steward the gift of life. We have actively disseminated our end-of-life documents and healthcare directives to Catholics across the state. It is crucial to educate Catholics and others about their right to both receive and refuse care (within ethical parameters), including receiving appropriate palliative and hospice care, as well as the availability of health care directives. If these rights and resources were more known, physician-assisted suicide would be considered much less of an attractive option.

Camosy: Every “no” that the Church is, of course, pointing to a larger, more beautiful and more fundamental “yes.” Perhaps in this case the “yes” is to an ecosystem of support for vulnerable populations at risk for PAK. Was that part of your response in Minnesota?

Adkins: Yes. Our opposition to physician-assisted suicide is rooted in our commitment to promoting access to authentic health care so that people can steward the gift of life, as well as protecting vulnerable members of our society. Patients with terminal diagnoses, the elderly, people with disabilities and the poor are particularly susceptible to the risks and harms of assisted suicide. This has been evident in countries such as Canada and several European nations where legalized assisted suicide laws have expanded over the years, increasingly targeting these vulnerable populations and even beginning to include euthanasia.

Camosy: If we are indeed “on the brink” as a culture when it comes to PAK, in which direction do you see us heading? And, perhaps in a related story, how can folks in other states learn from your experience in Minnesota?

Adkins: As a culture, we stand at a critical crossroads concerning physician-assisted suicide. The direction we choose will significantly impact how we treat the most vulnerable among us. There is a real danger of normalizing assisted suicide, which can lead to a slippery slope of expanded eligibility and increased pressure on people to choose death over life. However, there is also a strong and growing movement advocating for the dignity of life and comprehensive end-of-life care.

We think that our broad movement that focuses on saying yes to better care instead of just no to assisted suicide is effective in helping to persuade progressive legislators with serious concerns about the impact of assisted suicide on vulnerable populations and inequities in health care outcomes. Hopefully, that message will continue to resonate against the bleating about autonomy from the privileged few who advocate for assisted suicide so they can exit this life on their own terms, perhaps not realizing that in protecting their choice, they are endangering health care access and choice for everyone else.

Charles Camosy

Charlie Camosy is Professor of Medical Humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine and Moral Theology Fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.