I have to admit that in the last few months of my father’s life – as he languished from the mesothelioma that eventually killed him – I prayed that God would end his suffering and take him to heaven.
It was heart-wrenching for my mother and my siblings and me to watch my father suffer and to know that the best – the only – things we could offer him were our love, our tender care and the liquid morphine that was placed under his tongue to ease his pain.
To watch as someone who was always so strong and vital and vibrant suffer and die takes a lot out of a person. “Please, please, please,” I would beg Jesus, “miraculously heal my father or take this suffering away from him now by granting him a swift and peaceful death.”
While I have thought about him and have missed him every day since he died more than 17 years ago, in recent weeks I have thought more and more about those last couple of months of his life. What has prompted this is the renewed debate in the District of Columbia to legalize assisted suicide.
The D.C. City Council will be considering a measure that will allow terminally ill patients to kill themselves by legally obtaining from their physicians a lethal cocktail of medications – usually a mix of phenobarbital, chloral hydrate, morphine sulfate and ethanol.
Given my history of watching my beloved father die a painful death and not wishing such a fate on anyone, it would be easy for someone to assume that I would support this “right to die.”
I cannot support this precisely because I know what a painful death looks like and I know what it means to witness suffering that cannot be alleviated and I know what it means to actually see the death of a loved one as a blessing. Call it “assisted suicide” or “death with dignity” or any other euphemism you want, and it is still the same thing: getting rid of someone who has been deemed not to have the quality of life that meets the expectations of others.
There is so much wrong with the notion that we should get rid of those who are not living perfect lives. It is even worse to think that these people should kill themselves
Despite his suffering and his diminished quality of life, my father’s life still had meaning and dignity and worth. That is also true for every other person – every last one of them – who has suffered or who has a less than perfect quality of life.
The Catholic Church teaches – and I believe with every fiber of my being – that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That means from conception to natural death, our lives have a sacredness worthy of respect. This is true for the defenseless baby in the womb at the start of life, and this is true for the frail, the sick, and the elderly at the end of life.
God gave us life. He has a plan for every one of us, and if that includes suffering or being disabled or being dependent on others, then that is just the way it is. We do not have to be happy about it. We do not have to like it. But, we do have to accept it. We may be flawed, but God’s plan is flawless. We conform our will to God’s, not the other way around.
The Church also makes us aware that suffering can have a redemptive value. “Offering up” one’s suffering unites that person with the suffering Jesus endured during His Passion. It can also serve as a prayer. I remember a priest telling me a long time ago that “it must be hell for an atheist to suffer.” I never understood that until I understood the value of redemptive suffering.
Beyond the redemptive value of suffering, there are merits to be gained by those who care for those who suffer. Jesus wants us to look out for each other, to love those who can offer us nothing in return, to show compassion, to be merciful. We accomplish that when we give loving care to those who are at the end of their lives. We receive graces when we offer our tenderness and solicitude. We do not receive graces when we offer a deadly combination of poisons in order to get rid of those who are deemed not to have a high enough quality of life.
One can argue that religious belief should not be the basis for public policy. But, it is not religious belief alone that should lead a rational person to reject this.
Consider one of the driving forces behind assisted suicide legislation in the District of Columbia and in many other states: Compassion & Choices. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Who doesn’t like compassion and choice? Who could argue against compassion and choice?
Don’t let the name fool you. Compassion & Choices advocates for and supports laws that facilitate sick people in killing themselves and that free doctors from the fear of prosecution when they help a person obtain the lethal drugs to do so.
And, Compassion & Choices, before it changed its name to such an appealing moniker, was known as the Hemlock Society. The Hemlock Society was founded by Derek Humphry after he helped his 42-year-old wife kill herself because she had cancer. He wrote a book about his experience and then created his society to advocate for euthanasia.
He gained a boatload of followers in the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic first became prominent. He would hold seminars in which he would teach an audience – comprised mostly of homosexual men who were afraid of contracting the HIV virus and dying from AIDS – how to stockpile drugs to kill themselves when the going got rough.
Oh, this “compassion” was not free: Humphry would charge $10 a head for people to attend his presentation and learn how to not botch their suicide when they decided to kill themselves.
The Hemlock Society changed its name to End of Life Choices, and then later Compassion & Choices. Call it whatever you want and stick a pretty bow on it and it still offers the same message: “You have value as long as you have something to give. You need to get lost once the fun and games are over and there is nothing for us to gain from you.”
There is also the worry that legalizing assisted suicide could lead to abuse.
Consider the American Council of Life Insurers (whose member companies pay out life insurance claims when a terminal patient commits suicide). The ACLI has a fraud department dedicated to looking for cases where people try to bilk insurance companies by purchasing hefty life insurance policies and then finding a doctor to write them a deadly prescription so that their families have a nice little windfall.
There is a concern that insurance companies will see physician-assisted suicide as a cost cutting, money-saving venture. It is cheaper to kill a patient than to treat a patient. According to most reports, the average cost of the toxic mix of drugs for a patient to kill himself or herself is $300. One MRI alone can cost almost nine times that amount.
Advocates for assisted suicide say that the terminally ill should not be forced to suffer. When Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh introduced the bill before the City Council, she said her reason for doing so is because “the law should not force upon a person a punishing death.”
The fact is, there is no law right now stopping someone from committing suicide if they want to, and studies show that most of those who choose assisted suicide do not do so to avoid or ease pain and suffering. The Death With Dignity National Center on its own website states this: “The three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns are loss of autonomy (89.7 percent of patients cited this concern), decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (91.6 percent), and loss of dignity (78.7 percent).”
To argue that diminished autonomy or lack of participation in events or loss of dignity are valid reasons to kill oneself is an insult and an affront to the countless disabled men and women who live very nice and enjoyable and accomplished lives despite their limitations.
Also, this is more than just a matter of personal choice. It has far-reaching consequences. This skews the doctor-patient relationship, where physicians are no longer healers, but dispensers of drugs so some terminally ill patients can escape the pain of living.
Legalized assisted-suicide also poses a real danger and threat to another segment of our population that is vulnerable and most in need of our protection. First it was babies threatened by abortion, now we have the sick and the elderly threatened by physician-assisted suicide.
Remember when abortion was just a private matter of choice? It is now being pushed and advocated as a wonderful remedy for unwanted pregnancies and a viable option for men and women who see a baby as the cause of a loss of autonomy or decreasing their ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable or as a reason for the loss of dignity.
One would have wonder if the lucrative abortion industry would be a successful business model for the “death with dignity” advocates to emulate.
The push to legalize assisted suicide in the District of Columbia is wrong. It is immoral. It is dangerous. And, it is up to every one of us to stand up and make sure this bill faces its own “death with dignity” and leaves the rest of us to safely live out our lives as God intended.