The following article was published January 30th in the New York Daily News by DFLA Board Member Charles Camosy. The link to the article is here.
The physician-assisted suicide debate has arrived in New York in earnest.
Last week saw the Medical Aid in Dying Act introduced in the state Legislature. The bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients. Those patients would then have the option to ingest the drugs and kill themselves. The push is led by Democratic legislators including Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Scarsdale and Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island.
But when you think deeply about the practice of assisted suicide, it is antithetical to liberal values.
Paulin led the charge on this bill after experiencing her sister’s battle with ovarian cancer. She had to use feeding tubes for nearly a year because of how the cancer attacked her stomach. Her sister eventually refused all treatment and died soon after, but the worst part was that when the end did come, Paulin was unable to be present with her sister.
“I will always remember when my brother-in-law said to me: ‘All she wanted was for you to be there,’ ” Paulin said. “It’s broken my heart.”
No one can be unmoved by such stories. Those who support physician-assisted suicide do so out of place of deep compassion for vulnerable, suffering people.
But most people who honestly contemplate the long-term consequences of this legislation realize that legalizing the practice does the opposite of what is intended.
Such was the case in 2012 when Massachusetts had assisted suicide on the ballot. Polls indicated overwhelming support — only 19% wanted it to remain illegal. But as the people of the commonwealth began to study and understand the issue, support began to fade.
And while some think of physician-assisted suicide as a liberal cause, the rhetoric of most supporters is deeply conservative. Even libertarian: “Get big government out of our lives! Privacy! Freedom! My individual rights trump your view of justice!”
That’s why the wife of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Victoria Kennedy, claimed that passing assisted suicide in Massachusetts would insult the memory of her husband. Physicians’ groups and disability rights organizations also let the public know they didn’t want to legalize this form of expedited dying.
The results were astonishing. In just a few months, Massachusetts progressives turned the polls around and defeated the ballot measure.
We cannot let difficult and emotional cases make bad law. Palliative care — and especially terminal sedation — can now keep almost all patients from feeling even the worst pain. Stories like Paulin’s above conjure up scary images of patients writhing in torment — but in reality physical pain doesn’t even make the top five reasons people request physician-assisted suicide.
The reasons far more likely to be about not wanting to be a burden on others.
But there is absolutely no way to control the reasons why anyone requests assisted suicide. Which leads to impossible questions: What’s the basis for limiting it to those who will die in six months; why not six years? Why need one be dying in the first place? We are told in other medical contexts, after all, that the state is not to get between a patient and her doctor.
Think this is too dramatic? Consider the Dutch, who also highly prize freedom and autonomy, and have had euthanasia for several decades now. They first limited it to cases of “hopeless and unbearable suffering,” but just a few years ago, an otherwise healthy woman was killed via assisted suicide simply because she was losing her eyesight.
We can see the beginnings of a similar slippery slope in Oregon, where doctors have seen assisted-suicide drugs kill depressed patients.
On other issues, liberals rightly focus on how laws affect vulnerable populations. Liberals in Massachusetts worried that older people, already thought to be a drain or burden in a culture which worships youth and capital production, might be pressured to consider assisted suicide.
Those of us with progressive philosophies must instead unequivocally affirm the goodness of the existence of the old and sick. Especially when our consumerist culture tells them they have no net value.
Given our American obsession with autonomy and freedom, this slope can do nothing but get even more slippery.
Camosy is an associate professor at Fordham University specializing in bioethics.