What about do no harm?: Globe Columnist on Assisted Suicide

There were two excellent columns in the Boston Globe this past week about the topic of assisted suicide–one by Jeff Jacoby and one by Liz Walker.  Both bear reading in their entirety and sharing with others.  A lot of people, including Catholics, still think if a relative is suffering and nearing death, assisted suicide is a good thing.  Anyone who reads this column by Jeff Jacoby or the one by Liz Walker will probably come away thinking differently.  Here is most of the Jacoby column:

What about do no harm?
Suicide is not health care, and prescribing death is not a doctor’s role
by Jeff Jacoby

If Hippocrates, the “father of Western medicine,” were alive today, would he favor Question 2, the Massachusetts ballot initiative to authorize doctor-prescribed suicide?

Presumably not: The celebrated code of medical ethics that bears his name, which physicians for centuries took an oath to uphold, flatly forbids assisted suicide. “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked,” the Hippocratic oath avows, “nor will I advise such a plan.”

Some things never change, and one of them is the beguiling idea that doctors should be able to help patients kill themselves when incurable disease makes their lives unbearable. The advocates of Question 2 speak feelingly of the anguish of the terminally ill, suffering from awful symptoms that will only grow worse, and desperate to avoid the agonies to come. Not all of those agonies involve physical pain: Even worse for many people is the loss of autonomy, the mortifying collapse of bowel and bladder control, the intense unwillingness to be a burden to others, the existential despair of just waiting for death.

Question 2’s supporters call their proposal the “Death with Dignity Act.” As a matter of compassion and respect, they argue, we should allow dying patients to choose an early death when they decide their suffering is more than they can endure. “People have control over their lives,” says Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and lead petitioner of the Massachusetts ballot measure. “They ought to have control over their deaths.”

There is nothing new about this contention. The claim that assisted suicide can be an appropriate aspect of patient care, especially when the alternative is drawn-out misery inexorably ending in death, has been made since antiquity. Hippocrates heard the arguments too; then as now they exerted an undeniable emotional pull. There is a reason the Hippocratic oath obliged new doctors to stand firm against it.

Civilized societies do not encourage people to commit suicide, or seek ways to make it easier for them to do so. Individuals may choose, out of pain or heartache or hopelessness, to end their lives; tragically, thousands of Americans do so every year. But “tragically” is the operative word. A libertarian purist might insist that human beings have the right to dispose of their lives as they see fit. That doesn’t change the fundamental principle that life is precious and suicide is a tragedy.

Only a moral cretin yells “Jump!” to the man on the high bridge who wants to end it all. No matter how compelling and genuinely desperate that man’s reasons are — even if he is suffering from an incurable disease, with just months to live and only physical pain, nausea, and the loss of bodily control awaiting him — we don’t seek ways to facilitate his suicide. On the contrary, we seek ways to avert it. “High bridges often have signs encouraging troubled individuals to seek help rather than jump,” writes Greg Pfundstein in an essay at Public Discourse, the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal. “Suicide hotlines are open 24 hours a day because we hope to prevent as many suicides as possible.”

Question 2 would turn that premise inside out. Massachusetts voters aren’t just being asked to authorize doctors to prescribe fatal drugs for the terminally ill. They are being asked to endorse a view that our ethical culture at its best has always abhorred: that certain lives aren’t worth living. That there are times when people should jump — indeed, that there is nothing wrong with making it easier for them to do so.

Question 2’s provisions are highly arbitrary, as even its proponents acknowledge. It allows only one kind of suicide to be prescribed: drugs that can be swallowed, but not a lethal injection — let alone a bullet or a noose. It requires a prognosis of no more than six months to live.

Why such capricious line-drawing? Because, says Angell, that is the only way to make assisted suicide “politically acceptable.” Her candor is admirable. But it doesn’t extend to Question 2, which provides that death certificates for patients who commit doctor-prescribed suicide will falsely list the underlying disease as the cause of death.

Suicide is not health care, and prescribing death is no role for a doctor. Hippocrates would reject Question 2. Massachusetts voters should too.

3 Responses to What about do no harm?: Globe Columnist on Assisted Suicide

  1. tryingtofigurethisout says:

    not that pretty much eveyone on this site doesn’t know this , but the truth of the matter is this whole idea that jacoby discusses with this line

    They are being asked to endorse a view that our ethical culture at its best has always abhorred: that certain lives aren’t worth living. That there are times when people should jump — indeed, that there is nothing wrong with making it easier for them to do so.

    is without dispute , the logical extension of the idea that abortion is a civil right, a morally neutral choice , and in more cases than anyone seems to want to admit, a good thing… this whole idea of assisted suicide is built on the idea that life has a subjective value … NOT that it is objectively precious and should be protected at all costs until it’s natural end…

    i just cannot understand how Cardinal Omalley, who is waging a very good campaign against this assisted suicide cause, can continue to put up with a guy like Jack Connors who contributes so much intellectual and monetary capital to the culture of death…. Yeah, i get it… he gave many many millions to keep the schools open in the inner city and ” Help ” the poor kids….that is an objectively good thing….but would anyone with any reasonableness say that it would not be problematic at best to deal say back in the 1940’s with a company that provided say, millions in food and housing for the poor as part of their charitable contributions, but also manufactured the gas chamber parts that were used to extinguish certain ethinic groups druing world war 2?…..

    that we are at this point in this debate should strike no one as even remotely surprising….40 years of legalized murder of the most innocent of all….physician assisted suicide just makes sense i would say…..

    Cardinal Omalley… please…… end the association with Mr Connors….

  2. Liam says:

    Well, one thing that has not been emphasized is that this does not “help” suffering individuals so much to end their lives as to give medical care providers a higher degree of immunity from liability if they help them do so. In liberal Massachusetts, this was the angle that should have been emphasized, but I fear too many opponents of the proposal (which I also strongly oppose) are so accustomed to avoiding anything critiquing the culture of private enterprise that they’ve developed a cognitive blindspot about this angle. Or at least very dark sunglasses.

    (The same angle on ESCR is that it permits private enterprise to farm human beings; again, this was an angle that was not appropriately emphasized when Mitt was governor by opponents of ESCR, who were relatively meek in opposing it at a time when public opinion was more malleable than it has since become.)

  3. ANNE says:

    “Thou shall NOT Kill.” – God

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