To sanction the taking of innocent human life is to contradict a primarypurpose of law in an ordered society. A law or court decision allowingassisted suicide would demean the lives of vulnerable patients and exposethem to exploitation by those who feel they are better off dead. Such apolicy would corrupt the medical profession, whose ethical code calls onphysicians to serve life and never to kill. The voiceless or marginalizedin our society — the poor, the frail elderly, racial minorities, millionsof people who lack health insurance — would be the first to feel pressureto die.
What about competent, terminally ill people who say they really wantassisted suicide?Suicidal wishes among the terminally ill are no less due to treatabledepression than the same wishes among the able-bodied. When their pain,depression and other problems are addressed, there is generally no moretalk of suicide. If we respond to a death wish in one group of people withcounseling and suicide prevention, and respond to the same wish in anothergroup by offering them lethal drugs, we have made our own tragic choice asa society that some people’s lives are objectively not worth protecting. How does cost enter into this issue?In an era of cost control and managed care, patients with lingeringillnesses may be branded an economic liability, and decisions to encouragedeath can be driven by cost.Order now
As Acting U. S. Solicitor General WalterDellinger warned in urging the Supreme Court to uphold laws againstassisted suicide: “The least costly treatment for any illness is lethalmedication. “Why are people with disabilities worried about assisted suicide?Many people with disabilities have long experience with prejudicialattitudes on the part of able-bodied people, including physicians, who saythey would “rather be dead than disabled. ” Such prejudices could easilylead families, physicians and society to encourage death for people who aredepressed and emotionally vulnerable as they adjust to life with a seriousillness or disability.
To speak here of a “free choice” for suicide is adangerously misguided abstraction. What is the view of the medical profession?The American Medical Association holds that “physician-assisted suicide isfundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. ” The AMA,along with the American Nurses Association, American PsychiatricAssociation and dozens of other medical groups, has urged the Supreme Courtto uphold laws against assisted suicide, arguing that the power to assistin taking patients’ lives is “a power that most health care professionalsdo not want and could not control. “What does the Church teach?Our moral tradition holds that human life is the most basic gift from aloving God — a gift over which we have stewardship, not absolute dominion. As responsible stewards of life, we must never directly intend to cause ourown death or that of anyone else. Euthanasia and assisted suicide arealways gravely wrong.
What about related issues, such as withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment?Careful stewardship of life does not demand that we always use everypossible means to prolong life. Treatment can be refused by a terminallyill patient when its burdens outweigh its benefits for that patient. Insuch cases, the basic care owed to every human being should still beprovided. We may reject particular treatments because they are tooburdensome; we must never destroy a human life on the ground that it is aburden. How is the practice of giving dying patients pain medication different fromassisted suicide?The intent of modern pain management is to control patients’ pain, not tokill the patient. Rarely is there any risk that pain medication willshorten a patient’s life by suppressing respiration, even as a side-effect,because patients regularly receiving morphine for pain control quicklydevelop a resistance to this effect.
With modern pain control methods,physical suffering can be brought under control for all dying patients,almost always without resorting to sedation. As Pope John Paul II has said,pain management and other supportive care is “the way of love and truemercy” that we should offer to all dying patients, instead of offering toassist their suicides. What is the lesson of the Netherlands on assisted suicide?For years Dutch courts have allowed physicians to practice euthanasia andassisted suicide with impunity, supposedly only in cases where desperatelyill patients have unbearable suffering. In a few years, however, Dutchpolicy and practice have expanded to allow the killing of people withdisabilities or even physically healthy people with psychological distress;thousands of patients have been killed by their doctors without theirrequest. The Dutch example teaches us that the “slippery slope” is veryreal.