In February, as proposed legislation that would allow physicians to assist some terminally ill patients to end their lives moved forward in the state Legislature, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., issued a letter to legislators expressing his opposition as a “bishop, a priest, a man of faith ...  but also as a human being and a son.”

The Aid in Dying bill is scheduled for a vote in both the state Senate and Assembly on March 25.

His original letter, which appears below, was sent Feb. 11, the day that the Catholic Church observes World Day of the Sick. Bishop O’Connell told legislators that “never again will your responsibility be greater or your decision more important.”  

Dear New Jersey State Legislators,

Never before in the history of our country has the life of innocent and vulnerable human beings faced such jeopardy.  Never before in the history of our country have the “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of our citizenry, affirmed by our Founding Fathers in the “Declaration of Independence,” been subject to such denial by those responsible for their legal protection.  Never before have our constitutional obligations to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” been exposed to such danger as they are at the present moment.

The “Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Act” (S1072/A1504) which allows physicians to prescribe drugs to end the lives of terminally ill individuals “considered” to have six months to live — a prognosis that is not always accurate — embodies such jeopardy, denial and dangers to  human life.  Where will such legislation, commonly known as physician assisted suicide, lead?  I shudder to imagine.  What other consequences for human life will it directly and indirectly introduce? I dread to think.

The practice of medicine purposefully seeks to eradicate illness.  Physicians pledge an oath to “do no harm.”  Taking a life before natural death violates that vow and there is no turning back.  Their duty — and our duty as caregivers and legislators— is to assist those who are facing death, not to kill them.

Medical science has made advances in our lifetime unlike the world has ever known.  The care we can and should give to human beings with life-threatening illnesses reveals both the moral nobility of the efforts of physicians and caregivers to accompany the dying and their right to face the natural end of human life that all of us will eventually face, a right that is no one’s  — including physicians, caregivers and, yes, legislators — to take away.

I am a Catholic bishop and priest and cannot turn my back on the moral dictates of my faith.  But I am also a human being and a son who sat with my father and mother until they drew their final breaths.  My vocation did not make those moments easier to endure.  I did not, however, and never will regret that I had the chance to be with them until the natural end of their lives, until their Creator who gave them life called them home.

Yes, I oppose S1072 as a Catholic bishop, a priest and a man of faith.  But I also oppose this proposed legislation as a human being and a son.  And I ask you to consider all the consequences of the legislation that is in your hands.  Never again will your responsibility be greater or your decision more important.

Respectfully yours,

Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M., J.C.D.
Bishop of Trenton