Assisted Suicide

People have been fighting for the legal “right to die” for decades now. Assisted suicide (which, in another time, perhaps another place, God Blogging thinks might have been called homicide) is now legal in Oregon and Washington and Montana Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in September on a case that could lead to that gorgeous state becoming the third to allow assisted suicide. And as everyone knows, Switzerland is a haven for those wanting to chose the time of their own deal, being home to Dignitas in Zurich, which charges a mere $7,000 to put the terminally ill out of their misery. Or, as was the case earlier this month, put a relatively healthy elderly man to death just because he asked.

Protestor supporting assisted suicide in the Northwest; Creative Commons
Protestor supporting assisted suicide in the Northwest; Creative Commons

Folks may not be paying attention to what happened to Sir Edward Downes, but they should, because his case further clouds the waters surrounding the murky practice of assisted suicide. Downes, 85, nearly blind and “increasingly” deaf but otherwise healthy, was allowed to hold hands with his wife, who had terminal cancer, while they each drank a “small quantity of clear liquid” that killed them both. Normally, assisted suicide, when and where it is allowed, is sanctioned only in cases of terminal illness and grave pain. Oregon, which has had the practice for a decade, has a series of stringent requirements someone must meet before being allowed a prescription for “lethal medications,” most important of which is proving they have a terminal illness that will kill them within six months. But Dignitas pushes for death on demand, believing that everyone has the right to personal autonomy. Ergo, they agreed to what was essentially a suicide pact between Downes and his wife.

Downes, a former conductor of Britain’s Royal Opera and a world-renown composer, was simply suffering – if it can be called that – the effects of old age, and, it appears, from a surfeit of fear. He did not want to live in a world that did not include his wife. Let’s unpack this a little, shall we?

My father-in-law is 91, nearly blind from macular degeneration and he wears a hearing aid that still requires us to speak loudly, slowly and clearly. His artificial knee has worn out and he’s considering a scooter to ease some of the pain of walking. If my mother-in-law — the woman he still calls “my bride” — were to die, would Henry be lonely? Absolutely; one doesn’t spend more than 50 years sharing a bed with someone else and not wake up after that person’s death with grave heartache. But a broken heart, or the fear of loneliness, does not equal a terminal illness. It does not – it should not – qualify for assisted suicide.

Of course, I’m not sure anything should qualify for assisted suicide. Is the fact that one is going to die within six months really reason for us – the society – to assist in killing them? If the person is in horrific pain and palliative care doesn’t work, is that a good enough reason? If the person’s medial care is costing too much (defined by whom?), is THAT a good enough reason? According to an essay by Nancy Gibbs in Time Magazine, one-third of the people choosing assisted suicide in Oregon said they did so because of the burden on their families and caregivers, so maybe this isn’t even about impending death and current pain. Maybe its all about feeling like a burden and maybe that is the problem we need to deal with. Perhaps people need to relearn that life sometimes requires sacrifice, that love of family sometimes demands much.

Because if we don’t, there may come a terrible time not too soon in our fast-moving future where the choice to die (signing a living will saying you don’t want a feeding tube, for instance) becomes subtle pressure on the dying to just hurry up and get it over with: “You had a good life, Daddy, don’t you think? Isn’t now the time to just let go? Let me get you some medicine.”

The debate over health care reform is raging and while nothing new will come too soon, one of the scariest things I heard President Obama say in his discussions of the need for reform was that the elderly and those near the end of life account for “potentially 80 percent” of the total health care bill for the nation. OK, so what? Is my father in law’s life worth less than mine? Less than my son’s? Who gets to chose? And will there be pressure, ever so subtle (one imagines ads on TVs played in all the retirement villages across the country with a pleasant voice cooing about the benefits of no more suffering), for the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, to make life easier on the healthy, the young, the able-bodied by visiting their neighborhood “kill-me-now” center?

The slippery slope argument sometimes loses some of its force because it is applied poorly (i.e.: artificial contraception in marriage will lead to more abortions), but in the case of assisted suicide, I think we’re slipping right along. We need to look long and hard at some heavy moral questions. Is suffering, in and of itself, bad? Can the dying, in going through that process, not teach us all something about life? Are some lives worth more than others?

End-of-life palliative care and groups such as Hospice have made great strides in helping the dying pass on with dignity and without unbearable pain. Are there some cases where the pain cannot be relieved? Probably. Are there doctors who help patients in those cases? According to research, yes. But do we need to make that the status quo and the natural way the rarity? Absolutely not.

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29 thoughts on “Assisted Suicide

  1. Your article is an important one and this debate continues to trouble me.  Religion aside, it seems so obvious to me that deciding when one should die or killing oneself is, for lack of a better word, arrogant.  It says, “I have nothing left to learn,” or “This person has nothing left to teach me.”  Powerful moments can happen at the end of one’s life, and suffering is difficult.  Still, a holy man once said to me, “Only through the suffering will you be able to speak to me more beautifully.”  He was a man who had once been wrongly imprisoned and tortured.  Though I cannot compare my suffering with his, I understood what he meant after a cancer diagnosis that came a few years later.  And he was right.

    Before I close, I want to share a story that a member of the clergy shared with me over breakfast about 10 years ago.  He was a Catholic priest and a woman from his parish had asked that he pray with her family (Catholic) at the bedside of her husband (Jewish, but had not been to temple in 30 years).  The dying man was a well-known doctor who had been suffering terribly and was dying in a nearby hospital.  The religions here are of little importance.  What is important is that the dying man was in agony.  He had not spoken for weeks, and had not eaten in some time.  As this priest and the entire family held hands and prayed around him in his final hour, he sat up in bed, took the priest by the collar, a tear fell from his eye, and he looked the priest in the eyes as he gaslped, “I’ve been away SO long.”  The man died a moment later.  The power of God was so astonishing in that last breath of life that those who were present were unable to speak for hours.  God, and only God, had converted his heart and in His own time.  That moment was also one of the most powerful spiritual moments for all who encircled the dying man.  How tragic–arrogant–it would have been to have taken that all away.

    1. Well then, if you believe so, stop killing one another because “god is on your side” and stop electing people who send young people to die because “god is on our side”.

      1. I’m not sure why you think I would elect such a person.  I don’t agree with killing anyone… unborn, elderly, soldiers of any country, inocent civilians, anyone.  This is not a political debate.  FYI, I’m an independent.

      2. Leftfield: This is kind of crazy talk —- you’re conflating all religious people into one group of believers, and that just doesn’t hold up. Most religious leaders, for instance, were – and still are – against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as many religious people voted of Obama as voted for McCain. You will certainly hear radicals of all stripes talk about God being on “our side” but that’s not the average believer. And, the whole on our side is another blog post!

      3. renee – I will confess to a radical (“crazy”, if you prefer) POV when it comes to religion.  While I consider myself a very spritiual person, IMO, any reference to a “god” is just plain “crazy”, or, at very least, highly irrational.  So, whatever the particulars of a certain debate are, realize that I believe that “when one person suffers from a delusion, they call it a mental illness.  When a group of people suffer from a delusion, they call it a religion”.  You may have different delusions, but you all share a similar psychosis in my mind, a psychosis that leads you to behave historically in some very negative manners. 

      4. Leftfield:
        There are some who think God is a delusion – and there’s no use convincing them otherwise. But I think it’s a little off-point/negative/rude? to say all believers suffer from a psychosis. That’s a pretty serious illness, psychosis…. As for behaving historically in some very negative manners – I think most of what fanatics claim is religiously motivated is actually politically, tribally and culturally motivated. Some crazy person says, “that’s my land” and then, in order to justify taking it, adds “God wants me to have it.” Alot of negative is done in the NAME of religion, but it isn’t because of religion – IMHO – it is because of greed, pride, very human things … couched in the guise of religion.

        Meanwhile, you cannot ignore the enormous amount of good done in the name of religion as well. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, Red Crescent, all the thousands of youth groups that helped out after Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic Church setting up schools for poor immigrants in this country at the turn of the century, etc., etc., etc.

    2. Carrie: I really appreciate you sharing your story. It gives – it should give – a lot of people plenty to think about. Thanks for coming over and posting.

  2. Renee,
    An important subject, indeed. Obviously, we are not going to all see this the same, but I echo those who argue on the side of not allowing anyone to take his/her own life. Those who argue otherwise do not yet recognize their own dignity as beloved children of God; people who were brought into the world by a loving Creator, and are to be led out of this life by that same Creator. My prayer is that they would recognize their beautiful worth, and act accordingly, then apply it to all others with whom they share this space in time.

  3. Why is there always a few that believe they should be able to decide things for everyone? If you believe that taking your own life is wrong, then don’t do it. However, that does not give you, or anyone else, the right to decide that it is wrong for someone else.

    For the religious folks out there, let your God take His steps with these folks in His time. That’s supposed to be what He does, according to your Bible.

  4. This is why religion is so bad for us.
    As free people we can chose for ourselves how to lead our lives, and even if we wish to no longer live.
    Religion encourages tyranny – if a religious person thinks that it is immoral to commit suicide, no one forces them to do so but they are insistent on enfocing their morality on others and making suicide illegal.
    As with birth control or abortion, suicide is always an option and cannot be prevented – the only question for government is whether it can be done humanely and legally, or whether the Taliban will force it into a criminal underground.
    And then they feel morally superior.

  5. I, too, am concerned that eventually older people could be coerced into “choosing” to let go of  life.

  6. I think there are a couple of commentors here, and maybe even the writer who are confusing euthanasia with assisted suicide. There is a big difference and in fact what Kevorkian did was euthanasia aka murder. This issue is just like the abortion issue: right to choose what to do with your own body!

    1. Hi Margie:
      I think you might be mixing things up too. While assisted suicide is definitely just about the right to whatever with your own body, abortion involves not only the pregnant woman’s body, but also the body of the unborn child. So I don’t think you can compare the two equally.

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