Is Assisted Suicide the Most Humane Way to End Unwanted Life?
Even though suicide is against the law in most of the United States, there are a few places – Oregon, Vermont and Washington – where that law has been turned on its head, providing for physician-assisted suicide (AS) for those victims of terminal and highly painful diseases.
One state, Montana, currently allows AS via a court ruling – what some would consider a legal precedent known as the Baxter decision. The physician responsible for this precedent-setting decision is Dr. Eric Kress, a family practitioner for 26 years. The incident itself, which ended the life of a terminally ill but mentally alert adult via prescription, has passed into history.
Dr. Kress, who continues to practice, has provided similar relief for patients suffering from A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s syndrome) or esophageal cancer, and plans to continue doing so.
Riding the ebb and swell of the law in Montana, whose House of Representatives in February of this year passed H.B. 505 – a law forbidding physicians terminating, or aiding someone to terminate, a patient’s life – Kress seems equally sanguine about the April 15 vote to rescind H.B. 505. One wonders how he manages this equilibrium, when the law formerly provided for 10 years in jail and fines up to $50,000 per incident.
This is likely because Kress practices medicine in Montana, a place where he says he would gladly take a chance with a jury of his peers. “This is a state where people really value their freedom.” Including, presumably, the freedom to die.
Places Where the Legality of AS Remains Open to Debate
In some states, there is no clearly defined procedure or penalty for physician-assisted suicide. For example, in Nevada, North Carolina, Utah and Wyoming, the lack of any written law or even common-law practice puts AS in a shadowy realm similar to the 20-year-old “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule which prevailed in the U.S. military until a few years ago.
The Senate on Dec. 18, 2010 put an end to that charade, finally allowing gays to serve openly in the armed services.
Is There Hope For AS In the Future?
Assisted suicide has traveled the same rocky path as homosexuality in America’s armed services, and is making inroads everywhere else, but on a considerably delayed timeline. Or perhaps not, because just as Alabama and West Virginia are death on homosexuality – figuratively if not literally – those two Southern states also forbid AS. It remains to be discovered how Massachusetts, clearly a Northern state, fits into this equation, but fit it does.
Not surprisingly, in states where AS is forbidden, the charges (i.e., manslaughter, Class IV felony, etc.) are as varied as the penalties. But none is a walk in the park.
Many people may not even realize that AS started out not as a civil law but as a religious prohibition. Since God created all life, people who take their own lives, or the people who help them do so, are taking something away from God without his permission.
Fortunately, respected religious people like Billy Graham have come, in their later years, to moderate this presumably Biblical teaching (that suicide is a sin) by stating that the only unforgiveable sin is rejecting God.
It is this kind of charity, thrown over what must be an appalling lack of hope or an unbearable amount of physical and/or mental anguish, that may actually keep some people from suiciding, or from asking others to help them (an act which is called euthanasia). It does not, however, offer much to atheists, but presumably they are self-sufficient enough not to need moral assurances.
The Downside of Assisted Suicide
The real problem with AS is that some people might tend to abuse what is otherwise intended to be merciful. That is, instead of helping someone who is in dire pain to leave their body behind, a less ethical person might help someone out of life and out of a fortune. It has been done before and will no doubt be done again, and the so-called “disabling injuries” don’t have to be any more significant than quadriplegia.
In fact, some charlatans are so sly they can mold a living will to their own ambitions, especially where the patient’s family has seen their loved one suffer very badly for a very long time. This is particularly applicable when people understand that subconscious instincts – what pioneering psychologist Carl Jung called “genetic memory” – prompt most humans to help those who can’t be helped by “killing them softly”.
Others argue, possibly quite correctly, that there is no point in having a code of ethics regarding life and death if some will twist it to meet their needs rather than the needs of the patient. In other words, making assisted suicide legal will ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, lead to putting the mentally or physically damaged – of any age – “out of their misery”. This has already been seen where great sums of money are willed to individuals who have never done without; that is, individuals who never had to develop a perspective, a conscience (or a soul).
It has also been seen, though to a lesser extent, among presumed adults who are incapable of taking care of their children even though the damage, in physical or mental terms, is mild.