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Church braces to fight doctor-aided suicide

Archdiocese looks to possible ballot question in fall

The Archdiocese of Boston announced a broad education campaign yesterday outlining the church’s stance on physician-assisted suicide in anticipation of a possible November ballot initiative that could legalize the practice in Massachusetts.

“Were looking to educate people and influence people to understand what’s really at stake here,’’ Janet Benestad, secretary for faith formation and evangelization for the archdiocese, said yesterday.

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The in-parish education campaign includes a new website, suicideisalwaysatragedy.org; literature including pamphlets, posters, and a pew card about physician-assisted suicide; and a message from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley that will be aired during Mass this weekend.

Benestad said the archdiocese’s opposition on the proposed ballot initiative dates to last October, when O’Malley spoke against it at the Red Mass, an event for the legal community. The launch this weekend coincides with World Day of the Sick, a day inaugurated by Pope John Paul II 20 years ago to pray for the sick and their caretakers.

Supporters of the initiative have collected the necessary 70,000 signatures to get the measure before the Legislature, and if lawmakers fail to act, the binding question will go on the November ballot.

Steve Crawford, a spokesman for Dignity 2012, the leading support group for the ballot initiative, said that the archdiocese’s effort was expected.

“The College of Cardinals’ opposition to the Death with Dignity Act has been widely known for some time,’’ he said. “We respect their opinion. We believe that the people of Massachusetts are ready for the discussion about providing terminally ill patients with greater choice and compassion in their final days.’’

Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the education effort is just the beginning of what the church expects will be a long debate about the ballot initiative.

Education is a crucial starting point, Benestad said, because some Catholics are misinformed about what the proposal means. Many parishioners do not know that the church allows terminally ill patients to refuse treatment and to use as much medication as is needed to ease the pain, she said. Benestad said the educational campaign will address these common misconceptions.

Crawford pointed out that Dignity 2012 has had a website supporting its cause for months, at www.Dignity2012.org, and said it is wrong to view the ballot initiative as a call for physician-assisted suicide.

“These are people who are being killed by their disease, they have been certified by two doctors as being terminally ill, and their physician will be allowed to prescribe them life-ending medications which they will self-administer,’’ he said. “The physician is not allowed [to administer the drugs] and the death certificate will list their disease as the cause of death.’’

Donilon said, “We recognize that this is going to be a long fight, but the first thing you’ve got to do is educate your people about this and that’s where the cardinal wanted to start.’’

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@ globe.com.
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