Life with Dignity: A Personal Plea against Physician-Assisted Suicide

Saint Augustine wrote, “it is never licit [right] to kill another: even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against the bonds of the body and longing to be released; nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer able to live”.  (Ep. 204, 5: CSEL 57, 320)

For centuries, good and brilliant people have been advocating respect for human life.  I am not so very good, and certainly not brilliant, but the issue of assisted suicide, the so-called “right to die with dignity”, is very important to me. Physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is the law in some states, like Oregon, Washington, and California. Other states have sought to pass similar legislation, including my own state of New Hampshire. When attempts fail, advocates continue to push and I’m sure that more proposed bills will be coming to a state or country near you – perhaps your own.  Here, I don’t offer pages of arguments against these laws.  Instead, I offer a heartfelt plea against “Death with Dignity” in the hope of saving countless innocent lives.

My Life

Do you know what it’s like to be weaker than an infant, laboring daily to breathe, ravaged by an incurable disease, completely and utterly dependent on others for every basic need of survival? I do.  Although I am not terminally ill, but rather chronically ill, I know that one chest cold can turn into pneumonia and kill me… probably an agonizing death over days… or weeks.  Living all of my life with a progressive motorneuron disease, I have slowly weakened over time, becoming more crippled up and deformed, losing strength, losing simple abilities, losing energy, losing privacy. My family and paid home health aides feed me, brush my teeth, clean me of waste, bathe me, dress and undress me, transfer me to and from my wheelchair… and more. My parents have made tremendous sacrifices in order to help me survive each day. They are sacrificing their time, energy, strength — their own personal lives — for my life. And there have been times when I have wondered… is my life worth all of this? … all of this work, sacrifice and heartache?

If you knew me, then you would know how I answer this wondering.  My desire to live is very strong. In fact, I love life. My wonderful family is loving and supportive, my self-esteem is quite high, and my ability to enjoy life is deep.  Although physically I’m a wreck, mentally I’m quite healthy. I’ve never contemplated checking out of my suffering by ending it all. Any psychologist would discover that I’m not suicidal — in other words, that I am a psychologically healthy individual. And, yet, even I feel the guilt and sadness of burdening the people I love… even I wonder if I’m worth it.

So, I can clearly imagine what a person who is terminally ill would face if physician-assisted suicide was made legal in my state.

The Law

When voters, legislators, or judges make assisted suicide the law, it becomes an option for all terminally ill people in the state who are told that they have less than six months to live. And this option will be offered. Make no mistake about it. Those who push for this kind of legislation, and healthcare workers who support it, believe that they are being compassionate toward those who are suffering. They will want to make sure that every dying person has the chance to shorten the dying process by swallowing a gently lethal pill at a time and place of his or her choosing. They will think that they are doing the right thing, a beautiful thing.  But, there will be terminally ill people who will not want to speed up the dying process, people who will want to simply live until the natural end of their lives.  These people will be offered the “dignified” way out – and they will need to say No.

Do you have any idea how hard it will be for some of them to say No?  They will want to live as long as they possibly can… but they will wonder if that is a selfish decision.  They will wonder if those final weeks of dying will place a terrible burden upon their loved ones.  They will wonder if the slow process of dying will be too horribly heartbreaking for their loved ones to even watch. They will not want to be selfish. But, they will have to make a choice.

And this is where I start to feel angry. How dare anybody place that burden and that guilt upon any one who is dying from an incurable illness?  My heart breaks for all of the truly gentle, suffering people who just want to live until their bodies can’t hold onto life anymore… all of the unselfish people with that option hanging over their heads, causing them to contemplate suicide – something that they would never do on their own.

Yes, I know how easy it would be to gently guilt someone into overdosing.

And where, I ask, do we draw the line?  When people make physician-assisted suicide the law, then suicide is legally defined as a legitimate choice for people with severely shortened lifespans who do not want to endure the pain and suffering of a prolonged dying process… and then what will the next law be?  If voters, judges or legislators decide that people have the “right to die”, then shouldn’t they assist all suffering people who want to make suicide their “healthcare decision”? Remember, people with Alzheimer’s don’t qualify for physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill under current legislations, because they will lack competency to make decisions when their illnesses become terminal. They and their loved ones will have to suffer the whole long, debilitating dying process. The next logical step, therefore, in this misguided compassion of “Death with Dignity” is physician-assisted suicide for the chronically ill, as well.

And then, the elderly…

And then, the severely disabled….

Perhaps, like in the Netherlands, severely disabled children will even be “put out of their misery” when they are first born and diagnosed.

Life with Dignity

I know that people are just trying to do the compassionate thing. But, making doctor-prescribed suicide legal is not compassionate.  Suggesting that certain ways of living are undignified is actually cruel.  There is nothing undignified or inhumane about needing a bed pan or someone else to wipe your bottom.  I live this way.  And my life is worth living – not because I’m feeling good right now, not because I’m not depressed – but because I am here.

Should I feel burdensome and guilty for being here?

The advocates for assisted suicide are thinking about the people who want to avoid suffering — but, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to avoid suffering?  Nobody wants to suffer, even though it’s part of life at every stage of life.  The question is, what is the solution to suffering?

Is it suicide?

Is suicide ever a good answer?  Is that what we want to teach our children?

We absolutely need to help those who are terminally ill and suffering.  We need to face the reality of suffering and deal with it well.  Seeing death as the final solution is not only the easy and financially soluble way out – it is also merciless.  Mercy is born of love, not ease.  We are called to love one another – not just when it is easy, but especially when it is hard.  We’re all going to die. None of us knows where or exactly when. None of us even knows exactly how. And, yes, it’s scary. But, we are in this together – if that means paying more taxes so that nursing homes and hospices can be better staffed, then that’s what it means.  We may have to make sacrifices in caring for loved ones like my parents have made in their own lives – but they will tell you that, in giving of themselves, there is much reward.

There are many, many ways now to deal with the pain, the emotional suffering, and the physical act of dying. Let’s concentrate on legislation to improve quality and availability of hospice and palliative care for the ill and terminally ill.  Let’s think of ways in which we, ourselves, can actively and personally support those who are dying and the families who are caring for them. And let us not legalize physician-assisted suicide for those who want to hasten their own deaths at the expense of those who simply want to allow nature to take its course without guilt.  With physician-assisted suicide, there is no way of knowing how many gentle people will swallow that lethal medication because those with misguided compassion unwittingly caused them to feel selfish for simply wanting to live.

© 2017 Christina Chase

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