a little east of reality

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

assisted suicide & the de-valuing of life

I wrote a comment for Brian's post on assisted suicide, but it was so long I decided to create a post instead.

The longest experience we have with assisted suicide is in the Netherlands. This article argues that assisted suicide should not be legalised. Statistics and examples from the Netherlands are given to demonstrate what follows legalisation.
...because of assisted suicide and euthanasia, "pressure for improved palliative care appears to have evaporated," according to Dr. Herbert Hendin in Congressional testimony in 1996. Assisted suicide and euthanasia have become not just the exception, but the rule for people with terminal illness.

"Over the past two decades," Hendin continued, "the Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for the terminally ill to euthanasia for the chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress and from voluntary euthanasia to nonvoluntary and involuntary euthanasia...Involuntary euthanasia has been justified as necessitated by the need to make decisions for patients not competent to choose for themselves." In other words, for a substantial number of people in the Netherlands, doctors have decided patients should die without consultation with the patients."
Something like 27% of doctors there admit to having practiced involuntary euthanasia at some time. One extreme story from the Netherlands was of a doctor who agreed to end the life of a 26-year-old ballet dancer who was devasted at the ending of her dancing life when she got arthritis in her toes. 26!!!! How on earth did things ever slide so far?

My fear with the legalisation of assisted suidice (and this is also discussed in the article) is that older people would feel pressured to choose death rather than be a 'burden' on their families. Some families might encourage that kind of thinking. Pressure to choose death, or the likelihood of death instigated by health professionals (as described above) will also be increased by an inadequate and underfunded health care system with too few beds and too long waiting lists.

Dying in pain is a terrible thing, but I don't believe it justifies the devaluing of life that assisted suicide and euthanasia represent. I understand the argument about wanting to 'die with dignity' but I don't agree that terminally ill patients have lost their dignity. My grandmother had dementia at the end of her life. She said and did some ridiculous and pitiable things, often fell down without being able to remember how to rise again. At the very end the rest of her body gave out before her heart did, and she was unable to communicate or eat. But as a human being, her life still had dignity, because the muttering woman who thought she was still 25 years old, and the shell we said goodbye to, were not the sum of her, even at that point. She was a whole person, and her illnesses were just a normal, even if difficult, stage of her human life. She died with dignity because we never forgot the rest of her.

The Netherlands is a good example of the slippery slope we find ourselves on when we legally rank quality of life over life itself - it becomes too easy to decide that some people lives are not worth living. Just to clarify, I DON'T think that the option to turn off life support is the same ~ in that case the patient is only alive because of artificial help to breath, etc. Allowing a natural death is not the same as bringing death forward deliberately.