In 2012, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, campaigned against physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts. She pointed out that most people wish for a good death “surrounded by loved ones, perhaps with a doctor and/or clergyman at our bedside.” But with physician-assisted suicide, you get “a prescription for up to 100 capsules, dispensed by a pharmacist, taken without medical supervision, followed by death, perhaps alone. That seems harsh and extreme to me.”
Indeed it is.
Yet today, at least 18 states are considering allowing physician-assisted suicide. The media frame the debate as one about individual autonomy, especially in the face of devastating illnesses that rightly capture our empathy.
But the merciful thing would be to expect doctors to do no harm and ease the pain of those who suffer and to support families and ministries in providing that care.
Allowing physicians to help patients kill themselves changes the practice of medicine and our entire culture. Our laws impact society as a whole — not just a small handful of afflicted individuals. The question is: Will our law and public policy shape our culture to view the elderly and the disabled as burdens to be disposed of, or as people to be loved and cared for?
Human life doesn’t need to be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed. Doctors may help their patients to die a dignified death from natural causes, but they should not kill their patients or help them to kill themselves.
Physician-assisted suicide is bad policy for four reasons:
1. Physician-assisted suicide endangers the weak and the marginalized. Safeguards purporting to minimize this risk have proved to be inadequate. Over time, they are often watered down or eliminated. In the Netherlands, several government-sponsored surveys have disclosed that doctors have intentionally administered lethal injections to thousands of patients without a request. They have also failed to report thousands of cases to the authorities.
2. Physician-assisted suicide changes the culture in which medicine is practiced. It corrupts the profession of medicine by permitting the tools of healing to be used as techniques for killing. Physician-assisted suicide fundamentally distorts the doctor-patient relationship because it reduces patients’ trust of doctors and doctors’ undivided commitment to the life and health of their patients. Physician-assisted suicide offers a cheap, quick fix in a world of increasingly scarce health care resources, thus creating perverse incentives for insurance providers and health care financing.
3. Physician-assisted suicide would harm our entire culture, especially our family and intergenerational obligations. The temptation to view elderly or disabled family members as burdens will increase, as will the temptation for those family members to internalize this attitude and view themselves as burdens. Physician-assisted suicide undermines social solidarity and true compassion.
4. Physician-assisted suicide violates human dignity and denies equality before the law. A just legal system respects human dignity in everyone. It takes all reasonable steps to prevent the innocent, of any age or condition, from being devalued and killed. Classifying a subgroup of people as legally eligible to be killed violates our nation’s commitment to equality-by allowing lives to be judged as no longer “worth living.”
Instead of embracing physician-assisted suicide, we should respond to suffering with true compassion and solidarity. People seeking physician-assisted suicide typically suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, as well as simply from loneliness. We must respond with appropriate care and human presence.
For those in physical pain, pain management and other palliative medicine can manage their symptoms effectively. For those facing imminent death, hospice care and fellowship can accompany them in their last days. Anything less falls short of what human dignity requires.
Doctors should help their patients to die a dignified death of natural causes, not assist in killing. Physicians are always to care, never to kill. Citizens and policymakers need to resist the push by pressure groups, academic elites, and the media to sanction physician-assisted suicide.
- Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center.
Originally appeared in The Washington Times