Influences on the Vulnerable: Abortion and Assisted Suicide Decisions Are Not So “Private”



What do assisted suicide and abortion have in common? So many things. Like the death of an individual at the hand of a physician. They share an important selling point for those who support both: an insistence on respecting the private relationship between the patient and the doctor.

Here is an example of a good thing being misappropriated to serve a bad end. We can appreciate the privacy that would allow us to be frank with our doctor about our health. Discussions of symptoms and treatment options are personal. The decision to end one’s life or the life of an unborn child is not just personal.

My choice to end my life or take the life of my unborn child and the state’s sanction of such choices sends a message about the nature of reality. Legalizing assisted suicide and abortion sends the message that it’s a high good to commit an act (a violent act in the case of abortion) that would take a life if that life is somehow inconvenient or poses difficulties to me or someone else. If it’s okay to take a life, how is it not okay to do any number of less serious actions when I am threatened by discomfort or inconvenience?

Where do we draw the line? This line was beautifully drawn thousands of years ago by a very wise Greek doctor named Hippocrates. He states, in part, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.” This part of the oath has been modified by many medical schools to: “But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.” I posit that the schools who altered this oath were playing God when they changed it, thinking that they were somehow less frail (by virtue of what, I do not know) than their Greek counterparts who had the wisdom to know that a line needs to be drawn, not with a dry wipe erase marker but with the firmness and clarity of the original oath.

This private discussion between patient and doctor is not happening in a societal vacuum. The patient or the mother is surrounded by other individuals. These individuals can be many things, but trust me, they have a profound influence on this decision.

First, is assisted suicide or abortion even a health matter? No elective abortion is a matter of the woman’s health because taking the life of the child directly is never necessary to protect or save the mother’s life.

Alan F. Guttmacher, M.D., “the father of Planned Parenthood,” a longtime abortion advocate whose name was used for Planned Parenthood’s sister organization, the Guttmacher Institute, stated in 1967: “Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and, if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save, life.”

This was said in 1967. How much more is this true with the technology we have today? The mother may be treated for a life-threatening condition or illness with the indirect result of the loss of the baby’s life. The direct taking of the child’s life is not necessary to preserve the woman’s life. The baby’s health is patently not taken into consideration by the nature of the act of abortion. In the matter of a decision to take one’s life, the failure of medicine to effect a cure is the impetus for a discussion of assisted suicide.

Doesn’t this make it a spiritual or psychosocial matter? The meaning of life, of suffering, and of death all comes into this discussion from which we are told to butt out. And while we as a society butt out, the people closest to this suffering mother or critically ill patient are having their say. And the message, whether subtle or loud and clear, is, “Your quality of life is terrible, you are not wanted, you are a burden, and you need to move aside now, when we say.”

We use euphemisms but the effect is the same. We are madly trying to handle things on our own without reference to any power greater than ourselves. Big things. Things that aren’t bearable alone or with a deficient view of the human person and reality. We can’t really bear to watch another suffer because in our ignorance we can’t make sense of it and the pain of that dissonance, of our inadequacy, of the brevity of life and the finality of death induce us to grasp for control. There is no more vulnerable position to be in than to be pregnant or critically or terminally ill. You are very easily influenced. Take it from someone who has heard the stories of many post-abortive women: they were not supported, loved, cherished, or appreciated. They were pressured, cajoled, or abandoned.

This is the same spirit fighting for assisted suicide. Yes, there are heart-wrenching stories of terminally ill and suffering individuals who appear to be fighting for the right to die. Just like the mother who may be treated for a life-threatening condition and lose her child, a terminally ill patient can be made comfortable and slip from this life.

When a physician privately talks with a pregnant mother or a terminally ill patient, remember all the other voices that are having their say. When we clamor for the right to kill under the guise of a right to die, we are doing the opposite of supporting dignity.

Works Cited

1. Alan F. Guttmacher, M.D., “Abortion—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” in The Case for Legalized Abortion Now, ed. Alan F. Guttmacher, M.D. (Berkeley, CA: Diablo Press, 1967), 9.

#Volume4issue2 #physicianassistedsuicide #abortion

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