Brittany Maynard, an attractive and vivacious 29-year-old, spent the last few months of her life campaigning for the cause of “death with dignity.” She killed herself in November 2014 with drugs a doctor prescribed to her.
“Right-to-die” legislation has emerged in a handful of states, and physician-assisted suicide has come to the forefront of debates about life and death. Those who value the life and rights of every human being must be ready for the coming battle over whether doctors should be able to help patients kill themselves.
Physician-assisted suicide changes the essence of the patient-doctor relationship. If physician-assisted suicide were to become accepted in law—as it already is in some American states—patients could no longer count on their doctors to keep medicine’s principal promise, “First, do no harm.”
Language in support of physician-assisted suicide is deceptive and disingenuous. Groups like Compassion & Choices—the Planned Parenthood of the euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide movement—use euphemisms such as “aid in dying” and “end-of-life options.”
But no amount of money spent on slick public relations campaigns and dishonest messaging can change the reality that physician-assisted suicide entails a doctor helping to kill a patient.
There is a significant difference between aiding someone as he or she is dying and helping him or her to commit suicide. The former seeks to eliminate the suffering, not the sufferer. The latter embraces the notion that weak or sick humans are less valuable than strong or healthy ones.
Consider, too, the cultural and media double standards when it comes to suicide. When a beloved celebrity commits suicide, America collectively mourns his or her death. But when it comes to terminal illnesses instead of mental illnesses, our culture suddenly embraces death as a solution to suffering.
When similar cocktails of drugs are administered to prisoners on death row, many rightly recoil at the inhumanity of it. We should recoil at the inhumanity of giving lethal drugs to any human being, particularly those who face difficult illnesses.
For now, the “right to die” movement seems fairly content to use terminally ill patients to advance its agenda. But the movement’s standard for who deserves the right to access lethal drugs is arbitrary at best. In the Netherlands, mental anguish is justification for euthanasia. Babies whose lives are expected to be of poor quality are also eligible to die at the hands of their doctors. In Belgium, it is now legal for doctors to speed up the death of terminally ill children.
Palliative and hospice care are both alternatives to helping sick people to kill themselves. Families and communities must support the sick, vulnerable, and elderly instead of actively working to hasten their deaths.
Improving palliative and hospice care and ensuring that doctors, patients, and the public know about these options could be a powerful force in halting the imposition of physician-assisted suicide. So could strengthening bonds between older patients and their families so the former never worry that they are a burden to the latter.
Improved care, not killing, is the proper response to suffering.
Photo credit: Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons.