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The Swiss bishops on assisted suicide: “The Church cannot be present during the termination of life”

Ever more often, even independently of the desire to receive a sacrament, patients who consider assisted suicide, request human and spiritual accompaniment along with the presence of a pastoral caregiver or a figure belonging to the Church. Occasionally the request goes so far as to ask for a priest who can accompany the patient until the lethal drug is administered. How to respond? A document of the Swiss bishops explores ways and means of spiritual accompaniment and presence

Pastoral caregivers should leave the patients’ room during the suicidal act. The recommendation of the Swiss bishops is found in a 30-page document released today on “Pastoral behaviour with regard to the practice of assisted suicide.” The Bishops have stepped in because the practice of assisted suicide in Switzerland has been growing steadily for many years now, leading to a significant increase in the number of suicides. A growing number of citizens consider this practice an “acceptable solution when confronted with suffering and death”, the bishops remarked. The Swiss bishops’ document begins by stating that assisted suicide “is radically against the Gospel message” and its practice “is a serious attack on the preservation of the life of the human person that must be protected from conception until natural death.” The second part of the Document addresses a question which is clearly being asked ever more often to pastoral workers:

“Does my life have a meaning with so much pain? I want to die, can you help me?”.

In fact, in an increasing number of cases, and even independently of the desire to receive a sacrament, patients who consider assisted suicide request human and spiritual accompaniment and want the presence of a pastoral caregiver or a figure involved in the Church. Occasionally the request goes so far as to ask for a priest who can accompany the patient until the lethal drug is administered. How to respond?

Before offering an answer, the bishops retrace every stage of the act of assisted suicide detailing the behaviour to be adopted step by step. The process begins when the patient contacts the organization that guarantees assisted suicide and submits a medical record. If the association accepts to intervene, preparatory meetings are held and a date is fixed. At that point, one or two members of the organisation (who for the most part are not doctors) go to the patient’s home or medical facility. The person first receives an anti-vomiting drug to prevent the lethal fluid from being expelled. Half an hour later, the lethal solution is swallowed. The bishops point out that death does not occur immediately but only after a considerable period of time, during which the person remains conscious first, then gradually loses consciousness; their breathing weakens and a “minimum life” condition occurs before death. The duration of this process varies from person to person and depending on the lethal substance.

A study on 300 assisted suicide events in the canton of Zurich shows that once the product is administered orally, the onset of death can rage from 7 minutes to 18 hours, with an average of 25 minutes.

Even in the case of intravenous self-administration, death occurs not until an average time of 16 minutes. “There arises a difficult question regarding accompaniment during these long minutes of agony,” the bishops write, “can we leave a person to their loneliness during this time?”

“The general orientation, entailing utmost discernment, would imply accompanying people who have decided to commit suicide, “as much as possible”but the pastoral caregiver would then have to physically leave the room when the lethal medication is administered. The bishops give three reasons why this behaviour does not mean “abandoning the person”: when leaving the room the Church attests to being permanently in favour of life, while – and this is the second reason – the presence of a pastoral worker at the bedside of a person who deliberately commits a suicidal act, could be interpreted as “assistance or cooperation” on the part of the Church. As for the third reason,

the bishops invite us to reflect on the psychological impact of “helplessly” witnessing a suicide on the other people near the patient. Those who made this experience said they were traumatized for months, even years.  

The document explores the delicate subject of the sacraments (always to be considered “sacraments of life and for life” and not for death), the spiritual and human accompaniment of family members, friends, those who have taken care of the patient. The entire document is marked by the concern to take the desire for suicide seriously and never lose hope that this desire will be reversed and that with time it will become a desire for life. “Experience shows that the suicide request often conceals an unspoken desire, which must be discerned and deepened.”

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