“Today … the District of Columbia has become the 7th jurisdiction to authorize medical aid in dying for terminally ill people,” declared the organization Compassion and Choices last month. The advocacy group, which backs physician-assisted suicide, celebrated the defeat of “paternalistic politicians whose opinions should not get in the way of people getting the medical relief they want and need.”
Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) laws such as this authorize physicians to prescribe fatal drugs to terminally ill adults who choose to end their lives. With safeguards fixed into these laws, such as examination by two doctors and requirements for both oral and written suicide requests, it seems harmless enough. Why are “paternalistic politicians” getting in the way? Why not just leave the choice up to the individual—live and let live, or in this case, let die?
While seemingly innocent at first glance, legalizing PAS will start us on a slippery slope that will not only take thousands of lives unnecessarily, but will exploit the poor, abuse the elderly and disabled, and ultimately devalue human life.
The community in favor of PAS laws has been making significant headway in recent years. Oregon was the first state to legalize PAS in 1994, setting a precedent for other states to follow—Washington in 2008, Montana in 2009, Vermont in 2013, California in 2015 and most recently, Colorado in 2016. Similar initiatives are being considered in New Jersey and New York.
However, the argument in favor of PAS is fraught with cracks and holes. First, the law is meant only for terminally ill patients, but who is considered terminally ill? With more accurate diagnoses and effective treatments, cancer patients are living longer than ever. For example, today, 90 percent of women today live at least five years after a breast cancer diagnosis, compared to only 50 percent in the 1970s.
Second, the will to die is not always black and white. Many who attempt suicide suffer from depression or other mental disorders. By and large, people who request assisted suicide withdraw the request after being treated. A physician’s responsibility should not be to dispense with life, but rather to improve its quality through treatment.
Unfortunately, mental illness is not easy to diagnose, so laws favoring PAS could make it difficult for the undiagnosed to be properly protected. When a patient is mentally under-capacitated, doctors may run the risk of playing God in determining whether a life is worth living.
Just last month, an unusually grisly story was published about a Dutch physician who drugged a demented elderly woman’s coffee, and then while being lethally injected, the woman woke and fought to stay alive. She was also heard to have pleaded, “I don’t want to die!” several times in the days preceding this struggle. Rather than heed her requests, the doctor had her family restrain her and then administered the fatal dose. Shockingly, the physician was found not to have broken any of the country’s loose PAS laws.
Finally, as an unintended consequence of legalizing PAS, society’s disadvantaged may be pressured into suicide. The poor might resort to it prematurely to help ease evermore-burdensome healthcare expenses for their families. Other vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or elderly, may likewise be pushed into a planned death due to a perceived lack of contribution to society.
Financial pressures from insurance companies in states that allow PAS already tend to favor death over life. One terminally ill patient in Oregon, requesting a chemotherapy drug that might extend her life, was refused because her insurance company wouldn’t foot the bill. Astonishingly, the same company agreed to cover the cost of suicide drugs with a co-payment of only $1.20.
Anti-PAS laws make practical sense in the real world because they are founded on sound biblical principles. True Christians value the mentally handicapped, disadvantaged and terminally ill just as much as the young and healthy.
We must recognize that PAS laws are not just about the choice of a few, but rather the value of life for all. As for doctors, it is their ethical duty to preserve life, maximize the quality of life and never give up on their patients. As for each of us, we must promote the sanctity of life in all circumstances and for all people, for we are all children of God.
To all people let us say live and let live—and not die.
Mark Bendall is an English teacher and a graduate theology student at Houston Baptist University. He has a passion for writing about Christian living and moral issues. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas with his lovely wife, Brittanie.