It’s with good reason that there’s been nearly universal resistance to legalized assisted suicide, the supposedly “merciful” killing of human beings. People naturally recoil from intrinsically wrong acts, especially ones so seriously wrong as condoning or deliberately causing the death of human persons. Unfortunately, this natural moral sense is easily worn down by ideas relentlessly presented to people without resistance. Studies analyzed by Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman have shown, for example, that on college campuses, students primed to be familiar with a concept or word (even one not understood) will be comfortable with it merely because of the familiarity.
It’s understandable then, that two student editorials (April 22 and 24) seem to exemplify this phenomenon. Because the few states that have legalized assisted suicide have given those laws innocent sounding names, these students have made the mistake of using the term “dying with dignity” synonymously with “assisted suicide.” One editorial says: “Death with dignity should be legal.” But it doesn’t make sense to use the term “assisted suicide” interchangeably with “dying with dignity” because, while assisted suicide has been illegal throughout most of our history, dying with dignity never has.
My father died 6 years ago, with as much dignity as anyone could. He died of cancer in my childhood home where my family cared for him prior to his death. That he died in Oregon (first to legalize assisted suicide) had absolutely nothing to do with his own dignity and the dignity we gave him in his last days by being there with him, serving him, praying with him, in his own home. He would never have ended his own life and we would never have said to him: “If we can’t be with you in happy times, then let’s get this over with.” Instead, with compassion, we “suffered with” him (the literal meaning of the word compassion). As difficult as it was, I can’t even describe how beautiful and healing the experience was to our family — and our experience is not unique. Sacrifice for others is far more rewarding than frivolous pleasure, even though it looks rough on the outside. It’s like Oregon’s state rock, the thunderegg (similar to geodes); the unappealing outside doesn’t merit gem status, only its brokenness reveals the marvelous beauty of the intricately laid gems inside.
One student editorial evoked an image of “dying under bright lights with strangers all around” as the only alternative to assisted suicide; implying that assisted suicide deaths were peaceful and without suffering. This, however, defies reason and experience. Official reports of assisted suicides are scant, in part because physicians aren’t usually present; but existing reports detail complications causing suffering, including occasional cases where death doesn’t occur or is protracted.
Despite supposed safeguards touted by assisted suicide propaganda, the requirements are subjective and arbitrary, which means they’re easily changed, ignored or fudged. In the US, assisted suicide must be voluntarily self-administered, yet reports show cases of family members needing to “help” since things weren’t going as planned. Also, assisted suicide decisions are rarely made alone: consider how “showing support” for a decision can be indistinguishable from pressure for the suicide, implicitly or explicitly. The common impression, that terminal patients “burden” their family puts undue pressure on patients. Additionally, according to Current-Oncology.com, the Netherlands reports 500 cases, per year, of involuntary euthanasia. Belgium has even higher rates of required consent standards not being met. This is unsurprising given that only arbitrary lines distinguish who can and can’t kill.
Permission from more than one doctor is required, yet it’s easy to shop around and find doctors known to accept assisted suicide requests. In well over half of Oregon’s assisted suicide cases, assisted suicide proponent groups direct clients to doctors favoring assisted suicide over medical or palliative care, since patients’ own doctors frequently determine that requirements aren’t met.
Patient competency is required. Belgium began with this “safeguard,” but in a short time, discarded it so that even children and mentally incompetent patients can be killed. Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund calls the safeguards “flimsy.” PatientsRightsCouncil.org notes, “There are serious questions about how much pressure will be placed on parents and/or their children …. What would prompt a child to ask?”
A less-than-6-month terminal prognosis is necessary, not 3 months or 2 years; it’s completely arbitrary. What happens if the prognosis is wrong as so often happens? Patients Rights Council reports: “One patient was still alive 17 months after the lethal drugs were prescribed.” I personally know many people who lived many years after multiple, wrong prognoses.
Fortunately, Oregon’s 18-year experiment permitting this type of killing hasn’t really caught on, because trying to pass off assisted suicide as “death with dignity” is like using whipped cream to cover a bowl of cockroaches.
The writer is the outreach and speakers coordinator for the Shelby County Right to Life.