Assisted Suicide Endangers All
Last week in Washington state a 66-year-old woman with terminal cancer
made history as the first person to undergo physician-assisted suicide
since that state legalized the practice in November of 2008.
Proponents of legalized suicide celebrated Washington's approval of
this policy as a victory for the "death with dignity" movement. These
suicide advocates, in keeping with the rhetorical tactic of their
ideological cousins in the pro-abortion movement, equate "dignity" with
"choice." Unfortunately, as with the abortion debate, the "choice"
rhetoric of the right-to-die movement eclipses critical moral and
ethical questions which ought to be at the forefront of the debate.
Is suicide really a way to honor life and preserve dignity? What are
the social and cultural implications of normalizing the "right to die?"
Will voluntary physician-assisted suicide give way to involuntary
physician-assisted suicide where doctors decide whether their patients
would be better off dead? Will the "right" to suicide be transmogrified
into a "duty" to commit suicide? Will the elderly who consume more than
they produce be deemed "resource hogs" that have a duty to die and get
out of the way? In an age of scarce economic resources, will the
critically ill or the handicapped or the demented be viewed as
expendable by their younger, healthier counterparts? How will the
medical profession be transformed if those who are trained to cure are
given a license to kill? These and many other questions should be asked
and answered before we decide it's okay to encourage terminally-ill
persons to choose self-destruction in the name of dignity.
But we won't get answers if we allow this debate to be defined solely
in terms of the euphemistic "right to choose." Indeed, these questions
won't even be asked.
Dying with dignity does not require suicide. The question, "Do you want
to suffer and die or die with dignity?" presents a false choice and
assumes that there are only two alternatives at the end of life--pain
or death. Properly employed, modern medicine has the tools to mitigate
pain. Hospice care, for example, employs a multi-disciplinary approach
to ensure that terminally-ill patients endure their final time on earth
with dignity--free from pain and nourished physically, emotionally,
mentally, and spiritually. Hospice care does not seek to stop the dying
process. The goal of hospice care is to make a difficult time as
comfortable and peaceful as possible for both the patient and their
loved ones. The important distinction between palliative care and
physician-assisted suicide is that the first respects the inviolability
of human life in spite of the difficulties presented by illness while
the second rejects the sanctity of life in favor of an expedient escape
from pain and fear.
The embrace of the right to physician-assisted suicide endorses a form
of radical, atomistic individualism that ignores the fact that people
are part of a larger community--including families and society--and
that the decisions of individuals impact others as well. One does not
have to look very far to see that granting a license to kill to those
who are trained to cure undermines the ethics of the medical
profession: Holland's embrace of voluntary physician-assisted suicide
quickly led to a rash of involuntary "suicides" perpetrated by doctors
who presumed to know what end was best for their patients.
We ought not to confuse curing with killing. For thousands of years,
physicians have taken an oath to first "do no harm" to their patients.
Changing the paradigm to "kill or cure" will wreak havoc on medical
ethics and put untold numbers of lives in jeopardy.
The philosophy animating the right-to-die movement is that life's value
is measured only by material standards. Once those standards are no
longer being met, one's life no longer has value. In contrast, those
who view life as a sacred gift from God believe that every stage of
life is precious and holds unique meaning. This is true even at the end
of life. There is meaning to be found in suffering, not only for the
person suffering, but for those providing care and comfort to the
sufferer. A person's final time on this earth is a time for reflection
and absolution, a time to share love and forgiveness. For those
providing care, this time provides an invaluable opportunity to provide
comfort and succor in a most profound way, and it affirms the fragile
and precious nature of life.
Euthanasia means "good death"--but where should we draw the line?
Exchanging a "sanctity of life" ethic for a "quality of life" ethic
will put the weakest among us at great risk. If our society adopts the
notion that the terminally-ill are mere vessels of pain and decay--no
longer worthy of our best efforts at care and comfort--it will set a
dangerous precedent that will inevitably impact other vulnerable
members of our society.
When quality of life becomes the reigning criteria, then not only the
terminally-ill, but the disabled, the elderly, and the infirm become
prime candidates for "dignified" death by suicide. Consider the elderly
for a moment: A significant proportion of elderly residents in nursing
homes are afflicted with age-related disabilities and dementia. They
often don't know who they are, or where they are. Frequently, they
don't recognize their children and, in child-like fashion, they may
require assistance with even the most basic activities of daily living.
A compelling argument can be made that their "quality of life" has been
diminished. How long will it be before doctors, family members, and
legal guardians who embrace the quality of life calculus decide that
the lives of such individuals (who are also expensive to maintain) are
no longer "dignified" and are unworthy of living? This terrifying
prospect has already become a reality for some vulnerable individuals
right here in America. It will only get worse unless we seriously
reevaluate the merits of the right-to-die movement.
As with other issues involving life's most critical questions, the
right to die is not a simple matter of "choice." Its implications
stretch much further than the wishes of any one individual. It is
incumbent upon policy makers to understand these implications, and to
not be swayed by the misleading rhetoric of choice, or the allure of
the bottom line. They will also do well to remember that the idea that
there are some lives "not worth living" undergirded Adolph Hitler's
Aryan-supremacy world view. His policy of eliminating the "unworthy"
began with the mentally handicapped and physically disabled but spread
to millions of Jews.
The world has seen what happens when we embrace the notion that there
are those among us whose lives are not worth living. We must not repeat
this mistake again.
Contact: Ken Connor
Date: June 10, 2009
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