Lawrence P. Grayson
Every life has value and is worthy of continuing, regardless of how old, infirmed, ill, or limited in future duration. Yet, today, an increasing number of states are empowering physicians to assist terminally-ill people in committing suicide, so they can “die with dignity.” The movement, cloaked in an appealing euphemism, is indifferent to the sacredness of human life. All people have equal dignity simply by being human. An individual’s self-image may change as one ages, loses physical or mental ability, or suffers, but the person’s worth and inherent dignity are not altered. Life is a gift of our Creator. No person or government is entitled to take it away; no individual has the license to throw it away.
Assisted suicide is an affront to the Almighty, and denies society of the contributions the deceased could have made. Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence at age 70, at a time when life expectancy in America was 38. Doris Haddock, an 89-year old known as Granny D, walked from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in 1999 to raise awareness about campaign finance reform. Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses) began painting at the age of 76 when arthritis would not allow her to hold an embroidery needle; she became a nationally-acclaimed artist producing over 1,000 paintings in the next 25 years. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS (“Lou Gehrig Disease”) at the age of 21 and given 2-3 years to live; now 74 and completely crippled, he is a preeminent theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest musicians, lost his hearing at 26 and composed some of his finest works over the next 30 years. Helen Keller was born blind and deaf, yet graduated college and became an author, lecturer and political activist. The world would have been poorer had these people been euthanized at the onset of their infirmities.
Last year, Maryland’s General Assembly considered, but did not pass, the Death with Dignity Act. The bill would have allowed doctors to legally prescribe a lethal dose of medicine at the request of a patient who had been deemed mentally competent and received a terminal diagnosis of six months or less to live. The bill, with a less contentious title, the End of Life Options Act, is expected to be reintroduced in the current session.
The proposed legislation has significant flaws. First, as in the case of Stephen Hawking, the medical community cannot predict with assurance or accuracy when a patient might die. Hawking’s situation is not unique. There are many cases in which patients declared terminally ill have lived well beyond a physician’s projected life span. Many have even recovered from years-long comas.
Second, there is the question of the person being competent to make a life-or-death decision. When an individual receives a terminal diagnosis, the person often becomes fearful or distressed, especially if one’s condition will be an emotional or costly burden on others in the family. The patient may be rational, but feel pressured to die because of loneliness, depression, or family members who want to proceed with their lives.
Third, there is the societal concern for medical cost containment. The Obamacare legislation establishes an Independent Payment Advisory Board that is empowered to ration care within Medicare if the program exceeds a target growth rate. Will the stress to restrain costs influence medical personnel to encourage patients to choose assisted suicide? England has had experience with a similar cost-cutting approach. In the late 1990s, the country’s National Health Service established the Liverpool Care Pathway, a program to provide the elderly and terminally ill with palliative care while discontinuing long-term curative treatment. Stipends were provided to participating hospitals that met targets for the number of persons placed in the program. The endeavor was phased out in 2013 because it called into question the objectivity of the hospitals’ medical decisions, which hastened the death of some seriously-ill patients.
Further, there is an ethical dilemma created for a doctor when assisted suicide becomes a medical option. A physician should be devoted to healing and improving the patient’s quality of life, not promoting death. The American Medical Association, in its Code of Medical Ethics, states, “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” The medical community even opposes a physician’s involvement in capital punishment. The American Board of Anesthesiologists voted in 2010 to revoke the certification of any member who participates in executing a prisoner by lethal injection. The physician should not become an executioner.
While the Maryland assisted-suicide bill may appear to be compassionate and narrowly focused, it is the beginning of a “slippery slope.” If enacted, it undoubtedly will lead over time to additional reasons for sanctioning procured death. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, the number of persons euthanized nearly tripled in the period 2006 to 2014; assisted suicide for persons with psychiatric illnesses or dementia are sharply on the rise; and many of the reasons given for choosing to be euthanized are old age, loneliness and bereavement, none of which qualify as a terminal illness. Now, there is a movement in the Netherlands to legalize euthanasia for young children. In order to meet an increased demand, a network of traveling euthanizers has been created.
When the quality of life is considered more important than life itself, when efficiency and cost containment become criteria for medical decisions, when euthanasia becomes a therapeutic option for physicians, a culture of death rules -- life is no longer considered an unalienable right endowed by the Creator. God-fearing people have an inexorable responsibility to protect life from conception to natural death.
In Maryland, the Knights of Columbus, in solidarity with priests and bishops, working in parishes and communities, in collaboration with groups that have similar beliefs, must combat the procurement of death and the devaluing of life at all stages. The bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide must be defeated. It will be difficult, but with a united effort, prayer, faith and the help of God, it can be done.
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Published February 2016