Only Dignified When Dead?
By Stephen L. Mikochik
The U.S. Catholic bishops havey issued a statement condemning the growing campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Rather than promoting patient autonomy, this campaign is little more than a well-financed drive to protect doctors from legal liability for prescribing lethal drugs to patients who want to make themselves dead.
In Washington State, for example, where the campaign has had recent success, the doctor’s responsibility ends when the prescription is written.
No oversight, not even a witness, is required to ensure that the patient takes the drug voluntarily. Family members may never know how their loved one died since, by law, the death certificate cannot list lethal medication as the cause of death.
Though presently limited to terminal patients, the push for assisted suicide could threaten disabled people as well. Disabilities requiring life-support are already included in some legal definitions of terminal condition. Moreover, a prominent spokesman for the Washington Initiative expressed the hope that state law would soon offer people with disabilities, not just those with terminal conditions, assistance in dying.
In the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is legal, the procedure has progressed from the terminal patient to those chronically ill, from physical illness to psychological distress, from voluntary to non-voluntary and even involuntary administration. As America struggles to contain health care costs, this slippery slope is no distant threat. For example, the public health plan in Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, has already offered patients the alternative of lethal drugs in place of certain costly chemotherapy.
When college students or the unemployed say they want to die, we do all we can to prevent it. In contrast, when terminal patients or those substantially impaired express such wish, we would have doctors do what they can to assist it.
The truth is, we consider that wish reasonable because we have judged such lives as meaningless. In other words, rather than ensuring death with dignity, we assume such people only have dignity when dead.
Yet, as the bishops affirmed, it is life, not death, that dignifies; for with life, no matter how short or how broken, we have the capacity to love.
Mikochik is a law professor at Temple Law School in Philadelphia and a visiting professor of law at Ave Maria Law School in Naples. He is chairman of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and is himself blind. He lives in Naples.