In December of 2020, Austria’s Constitutional Court struck down a ban on assisted suicide, presumably paving the way for its legalization. This decision specifically struck down one portion of the criminal code which allowed for the prosecution of any person who assisted another person to end his or her life; the Court found that the code’s wording violated an individual’s right to self-determination.
Archbishop Franz Lackner, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Austria, recently summarized the bishops’ stance at a press conference following the group’s summer plenary session. He insisted, “Prevention [of suicide] must remain the State’s declared objective in the field of health. There is a risk of entering into a situation where a distinction is made between good and bad suicide.”
His statement echoes comments made by the bishops in a five-page statement released on June 1, 2021, the Austrian Church’s Day for Life, which noted, “Dying is a part of life, but not killing. Assisted suicide must therefore never be understood as a medical service or otherwise a service of a healthcare profession.”
The Archbishop further emphasized that palliative care and hospices should be nationally accessible and affordable, and that individuals in need of psychosocial support during crises deserve to receive it. Additionally, as reported by Vatican News, “interference by third parties must also be prevented by law; there is also a need for accurate and reliable diagnoses, the provision of mandatory counselling on the concrete possibilities of palliative care and hospices, as well as psychotherapy.”
After the court ruling, Lackner wrote, “Up until now, every person in Austria could assume that their life was considered to be unconditionally valuable — up to their natural death. With its decision, the supreme court removed an essential basis for this consensus.” He additionally stressed that healthcare professionals must not be compelled to assist with assisted suicide in any way, and directly tackled the Court’s assertion that banning assisted suicide violated an individual’s right to self-determination.
“The limits of self-determination become apparent in life crises, in the event of a serious experience of suffering or in the face of a death that is becoming tangible,” the bishops argued, “It is an illusion to believe that we can determine ourselves completely and independently at any moment. As the constitutional court also admits, experience teaches us different things: We need each other! Man is a social being, always dependent and receptive to the expectations and valuations of the people around him.”
The bishops alluded to the possibility of coercion of individuals with terminal illness or disabilities. They warned, “a widely publicized option to commit suicide puts pressure on all those who face life until natural death and are dependent on the help of others to do so. According to the dangerous logic of euthanasia, they too would have the possibility to end their lives ‘autonomously.'” Sadly, the bishops’ prediction for Austria is not prescient but simply cognizant of abuses that have already occurred in countries that have legalized assisted suicide.
Disturbingly, Austria is part of a broader European trend towards acceptance of assisted suicide, with efforts to legalize the practice underway in Ireland, Portugal, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Spain recently legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Society largely aims to reduce suicide among young and healthy individuals, including holding Suicide Prevention Month in the U.S. each September. Sadly, for people with chronic illness, disabilities, and terminal illness, suicide isn’t treated as something to prevent, but something to promote. However, suicide is always a tragedy — even for the sick, the dying, and the disabled.
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