How are we to best care for the dying? This crucial issue impacts us at our core, not only in light of our own eventual demises, but because we all want the best for those we love. Happily, hospice and advances in pain control allow for truly compassionate care. Unlike much of human history, today patients can die peacefully at home, without significant pain, in the loving presence of their families.
But some assert this isn’t enough, that doctors should be allowed to prescribe suicide for terminally ill patients who want to die. These advocates even go so far as to call assisted suicide the “ultimate civil liberty.” But peel away the veneer of “choice” and we can see that assisted suicide abandons people — who might eventually regain the desire to live — to a premature death.
When I was a hospice volunteer, I met one such person. His name was Bob, and he was dying from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Bob told me that he had been suicidal for 2½ years after the solar plexus blow of his diagnosis. Jack Kevorkian was active at the time, and Bob had wanted a Kevorkian exit. Had his family cooperated, he would have died sooner rather than later. But they wouldn’t and so he didn’t.
“I eventually came out of the fog,” he told me, “and I am so glad to be alive.”
Bob spent his last18 months on earth happily watching his three daughters blossom, intensely loving his wife, and making some money for his family with online investing. When the end came, it was peaceful and in his sleep.
The same point was made in a letter-to-the-editor published in the Oct. 4, 2011, Boston Globe by Jeanette Hall, a cancer survivor. Hall lives in Oregon where assisted suicide is legal. After being told she had six months to live, Hall wrote, she asked her doctor for assisted suicide:
I didn’t want to suffer. I wanted to do what our law allowed, and I wanted my doctor to help me. Instead, he encouraged me not to give up, and ultimately I decided to fight the disease. I had both chemotherapy and radiation. I am so happy to be alive! It is now 11 years later. If my doctor had believed in assisted suicide, I would be dead.
Hall and Bob convey an important message we don’t hear often enough in the debates about end-of-life care: If we legalize assisted suicide, some patients will die instead of ultimately regaining their joy in living.
For some reason, this message doesn’t resonate as vividly as the siren song of doctor-prescribed death. But know this: If we are seduced into legalizing assisted suicide, we will cheat at least some people out of the universe’s most precious and irreplaceable commodity: Time.
Assisted suicide isn’t “choice;” it is the end of all choices. Doctor prescribed death is not “death with dignity;” it is really the euthanasia of hope.
The Santa Barbara Natural History Museum and the Santa Barbara Foundation will host a free town hall on “Death … in the Age of Choice,” from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 19 at the museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium, 2559 Puesta del Sol Road. Admission is free. Click here for more information.
— Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a legal consultant to the Patients Rights Council. He will be a panelist at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum’s Oct. 19 “Death … in the Age of Choice” town hall.