Last December, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a law permitting D.C. residents to pursue physician-assisted suicide. The law was patterned after Oregon’s 1998 Death With Dignity law, which permits terminally ill patients to administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician for that purpose. In the District, this option is available to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live. In passing this law, the D.C. joined six states that already permit physician-assisted suicide (PAS).
Typically, supporters of PAS base their arguments on a concern for the wellbeing and best interests of patients with terminal illnesses. Easing pain at the end of life is the most commonly cited argument in favor of PAS. And while navigating terminal illnesses is certainly a challenging, painful undertaking for both patients and their families, most patients do not cite pain as the primary reason they request physician-assisted suicide. Rather, according to a report by the National Institutes of Health, patients commonly cite depression, loneliness and concerns about independence and the worry of being a burden in their decision to consider physician-assisted suicide.
What does this seemingly counterintuitive fact say about how our society treats the dying and vulnerable? The presence of physician-assisted suicide laws reveals that unless a person’s life meets our subjective standards of being productive or rewarding, we view it as simply not worth living. Furthermore, we maintain high expectations for people to be self-sufficient, so much so that if they are unable to do so, they worry about being unworthy of even existing. Instead of offering our time, assistance and compassion to those who are suffering, physician-assisted suicide offers a seemingly painless solution to all involved: by ending their lives, patients eliminate their fears and worries while freeing up the time and energy of their loved ones who would otherwise care for them. Choosing to die is not necessarily easier forthe ill, but it is certainly easier for us, and the twisted incentives of PAS laws should be concerning to say the least.
Indeed, once living becomes a choice, then every single person, whether or not he wants to continue living, must question if it is right to do so. Would a dying patient not feel he was living on stolen time and using wasted resources when PAS was an option from the beginning? And those who had to care for him, would they not feel disdain for the creature that chose to continue being a burden? We must consider the implications of condoning or even encouraging suicide. If we laud those who take their own lives for their selflessness, courage, and stoic confrontation of death, what are we implicitly saying about those that choose to forego PSA?
In short, physician-assisted suicide sends the message that some people are just not worth the trouble. This same mentality, when taken to its logical conclusion, permits euthanasia as an acceptable mechanism for dealing with any vulnerable group of people, whether they be the disabled, the elderly, the poor, or the terminally ill. Indeed, once we start viewing people not as human beings but as burdens, not as something to be cared for but something to be rid of, the horrors we might commit are staggering.
Furthermore, this law is problematic in its treatment of people suffering from mental illness. Instead of considering clinical depression and other mental conditions as possible contributors to patients’ desire to die, physician-assisted suicide laws often ignore mental illness, which further entrenches the stigma of being untreatable. Mental anguish is a very serious condition, yet it can be remedied, and our focus should be on improving quality of life, not ending it.
Though it may be motivated by a desire to ease patients’ suffering, ultimately, physician-assisted suicide endangers our society’s most powerless. It perverts our natural inclination to care for those in need of our help, and eases our burden by obligating them to remove the very need for their care. PAS laws reinforce the perception that those undergoing chronic or terminal illness are a burden to their families and society. The consistent life ethic demands that we actively affirm the inherent dignity and worth of those suffering terminal illnesses and confirm our commitment to caring for them.