Respect life and religious freedom conference tackles issues

COLUMBIA—Defenders of life want everyone to know how to address and confront difficult pro-life issues in our society. The Diocese of Charleston’s Respect Life and Religious Freedom conference tackled those concerns with about 80 attendees at St. John Neumann Church recently.

Speakers addressed societal indifference to life and Gospel values that have brought it to a point where the elderly, sick and disabled are no longer sure their right to life will be respected. They also spoke about the power of politicians and how to get their attention.

Dr. William Toffler said a general disregard for life’s sanctity led to a state law protecting physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, his home state. Toffler is director of pre-doctoral education at Oregon Health Science University, and co-founder and national director of the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation. The non-profit promotes care for severely ill people without sanctioning or assisting suicide.

Toffler said studies have shown that many people who considered assisted suicide were suffering from severe depression or other psychological issues that could impact their ability to make decisions.

Rising costs of health care could lead to the belief that euthanasia is the right decision, he said.  But this argument only focuses on the economic impact of caring for the seriously ill, and ignores the right of every person to die with dignity.

He spoke of a cancer patient who received care from Oregon’s state plan. She was told the plan would not cover a prescribed chemotherapy drug, but it did cover assisted suicide as part of a “comfort care” regimen.

Catholic teaching encourages people and their caregivers to face the reality of death and make their own decisions about how much intervention they want. It does not require everyone to go through extraordinary measures, but does forbid deliberately choosing suicide or causing someone to die.

“The right to choose death when you want it becomes the right of other people to choose for you when you are unable to make your own decisions,” Toffler said. “Death on demand often eventually becomes elimination of lives that others deem ‘worthless’ or ‘undignified.’”

He encourages people to write their legislators and make sure euthanasia is not left out of any health care legislation or right-to-life issues. He said assisted suicide is often treated with more skepticism now than it was when Oregon’s law was first introduced.

“The push back is underway,” he said. “The disabled community has been awakened, and the legal community is increasingly aware of the implications of this legislation, for instance that there are no witnesses in many of these cases, no safeguards.”

Hillary Byrnes, assistant general counsel at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., discussed current threats to religious liberty.

Byrnes said threats include the contraception mandate in the new health care law and Catholic Charities ending adoption and foster care services over morality issues. She also cited proposed state immigration laws that would make it a crime for Catholics to feed, house or help illegal immigrants, and other laws that would prevent church organizations from obtaining government grants unless they agree to provide information about abortion and contraception.

“We shouldn’t be disqualified from working with the government because of our beliefs … we should be able to apply for grants and work with the poor on the same level as other people,”  Byrnes said. “We just want the ability to serve others according to the Gospel and not be interfered with by the government.”

She said the faithful can work for religious liberty by praying for the cause, writing their legislators, and becoming educated on the issues.

“The economy is going to be a big priority in this election, but religious freedom needs to be as well,” she said.