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Cardinal rips suicide ballot effort

Urges law community to fight bid by group

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley expressed opposition to a ballot petition that would make physician-assisted suicide legal, yesterday at the annual Red Mass for Massachusetts lawyers and jurists. About 175 judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals attended the Mass, held at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley expressed opposition to a ballot petition that would make physician-assisted suicide legal, yesterday at the annual Red Mass for Massachusetts lawyers and jurists. About 175 judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals attended the Mass, held at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley urged the Catholic legal community yesterday to oppose a ballot petition that would make physician-assisted suicide legal in Massachusetts, reaffirming the church’s stance on end of life care.

“We are called upon to defend the gospel of life with courage and resolve,’’ O’Malley said, delivering the homily at an annual Mass for Bay State lawyers and jurists held in Cathedral of the Holy Cross. “Your very profession invests in all of you a great responsibility to ensure that all laws are just.’’

O’Malley, spiritual leader of nearly 2 million Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston, chose the audience of about 175 judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals to deliver his first public comments on what promises to be an emotional debate on an initiative petition proposed by Dignity 2012, a ballot question committee based in Quincy.

This month, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference the public policy arm of the church in the Bay State, issued a statement denouncing the petition.

“The Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts are strongly opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide because it is contrary to the good of persons and contrary to the common good of this state,’’ the Sept. 7 statement said.

The so-called Death With Dignity ballot question would make it legal for terminally ill Massachusetts residents to take a lethal dose of prescription drugs to end their lives. Attorney General Martha Coakley recently certified the language of the ballot question.

Proponents must collect 70,000 signatures of registered Bay State voters before the petition can be presented for action on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers could either adopt it as a law or let voters decide in the November 2012 general election.

O’Malley did not identify Dignity 2012 by name, but urged Bay State voters to carefully consider the language of the ballot question.

“We hope the citizens of the Commonwealth will not be seduced by language [such as ] dignity and compassion, which are means to disguise the sheer brutality of helping people to kill themselves,’’ O’Malley said.

A spokesman for Dignity 2012, which was not represented at the Mass, declined to criticize O’Malley or the church’s position.

“We certainly respect the cardinal’s opinion and believe that the people of Massachusetts are ready for the discussion, about how best to provide peace, dignity, and control for terminally ill patients in their final days of life,’’ Steve Crawford said yesterday afternoon by phone.

He said the proposal is meant to provide terminally ill people with a choice about how they die.

“This provides people with a choice to request, from their doctor, a medicine that would end their life, when other medical efforts to alleviate their pain and suffering are inadequate,’’ Crawford said.

However, O’Malley said “allowing physicians to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the medical profession. It even violates the Hippocratic Oath, that has guided physicians for thousands of years.

He said people of all faiths must work to reassure the sick and dying of the value of human life, and work to improve end-of-life care.

“People at the end of life fear losing control . . . fear being abandoned,’’ O’Malley said to the silent congregation. “We as a society will be judged on how we respond . . . to those who believe their lives have diminished in value. Most people, regardless of their [religious beliefs] know that suicide is a tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent.’’

Oregon and Washington state have laws that allow physician-assisted suicide. The state Supreme Court in Montana ruled in 2009 that there is no law on that state’s books to prevent assisted suicide. In Vermont, a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide pending in the Legislature is similar to the Massachusetts ballot petition.

Dignity 2012 has until November to collect the signatures it will need to present its petition to the state legislators.

“We’re mobilizing to get our signatures now,’’ Crawford said.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference also plans a grass-roots campaign to educate voters about its position.

“We plan to educate the electorate, to help people understand that what this petition is really about is suicide,’’ O’Malley said in a brief interview after the service.

His message was embraced by some in the legal community who attended the hourlong Mass.

“I liked what he had to say,’’ said Timothy O’Neill, a Boston lawyer. “The idea of assisted suicide leads to the whole other question on the meaning of life.’’

Jane Crimlisk, a retired probation officer from Dedham, said O’Malley’s homily was “wonderfully done, especially the way he wove it into the readings.’’

“He expressed what many Catholics believe,’’ she said.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.