In a letter to all members of Congress, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago has called for passage of a proposed resolution condemning efforts by right-to-die advocates to make it legal to help others commit suicide.
The cardinal, who heads the U.S. Catholic hierarchy's Committee for Pro-Life Activities, said he backs a nonbinding resolution offered by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).
The proposal criticizes what the legislator terms the "misguided campaign" to legalize assisted suicide.
The campaign is focused on a proposed California ballot initiative that would allow physicians to give lethal injections to gravely ill patients who wish to end their lives.
Spearheading the effort is a national organization called the Hemlock Society, which is expected to seek ballot initiatives in other states if the proposal is approved in California.
In his letter, Bernardin expressed fears that such measures constitute threats to the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the elderly and the young.
Linking the proposed initiative to the alarming rate of suicides among teen-agers, he pointed out that taking one's own life is the third leading cause of death among adolescents in this country and that there is a disproportionately high suicide rate among elderly Americans.
While most states have dropped laws against suicide, helping others in the act of killing themselves is still considered homicide.
Right-to-die advocates say assisted suicide is part of the right of seriously ill patients to decide whether their lives should be prolonged.
The proposed resolution "presents an opportunity for national lawmakers to go on record regarding what may well become one of the fundamental domestic human rights issues of the late 20th century," Bernardin said, by expressing the "sense of Congress" that assisted suicide is wrong.
He said action by Congress would reaffirm "our nation's commitment to the inalienable right to life, the necessary condition for all other rights and freedoms."
In recent years the "right to life" movement has added opposition to euthanasia to its efforts to stamp out abortion.