Hippocratic or hypocritical? The problem with doctor-assisted suicide
As Maryland lawmakers prepare to hold public hearings on whether the state should join nine others that allow terminally-ill patients to choose physician-assisted suicide, it begs a serious question with no easy answer: Is suicide wrong?
Granted, the question of the humanity of physician-assisted suicide is a complicated one. For those who have completed Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which is the global gold standard for training in suicide first aid, they are asked to grapple with this question at the beginning of the training.
The responses from participants are typically complex and illustrative of the moral ambiguity that is informed by the diversity of experiences, circumstances, and suffering that often lie beneath the question. According to a 2018 report, 2,217 people chose to die with the help of a doctor, with 1,459 patients dying in this manner as of February 2019.
However, the general consensus is a person with a terminal illness does not want to die. What he or she wants is an escape from pain and uncertainty, and likely prefers that this desire be satisfied without dying if given the option. Some argue that a dearth of options is precisely why an otherwise rational person may choose to die and justify supporting doctor-assisted suicide.
However, I challenge those who support doctor-assisted suicide to process their own thoughts and experiences, which may include periods of profound hardship, and consider the question of whether a life saturated with pain or suffering can still be meaningful.
If the answer is yes, then how do we find ourselves now in a place where human beings are not only not preventing suicide, but encouraging it for people who have hit the absolute height of vulnerability?
We do our best to discourage at-risk military combat veterans, police officers, and firefighters, all of whom die at higher rates than their peers by age in other professions, from putting guns to their temples, hanging themselves, overdosing on medications, or jumping off bridges. One could argue they too have a terminal illness, of a different sort, that leaves them dying inside.
Yet, they rightfully don’t enjoy the same option to escape from the pain that is offered to a terminal cancer patient, for example, in states that allow doctor-assisted suicide.
We tell these men and women that their lives do, in fact, have meaning. Then we allow members of our ostensibly civil society to facilitate self-inflicted death in one instance while criminalizing it in another. The problem with suicide in America isn’t just in the statistics and its general prevalence.
It is in the inconsistent standards we apply that masquerade as compassion for the select few who apparently deserve a permanent escape from pain with the help of a system that’s supposed to support and sustain life. In other words, do no harm.
But mercy killing is harm, both biologically and principally. It’s inhumane and undermines the human inclination to fight to live in the face of hardship. There’s a reason why a sane person cannot choke himself to death with his own hands, or why she will instinctively fight for air when submerged underwater too long.
Doctor-assisted suicide exploits the vulnerability of those who merely want freedom from pain by suggesting the capacity for perfect judgment, or the accurate prediction of certain disease-related death, is achievable by virtue of medical education.
The suicide problem is bad enough in this country. To further codify, it is to promote it essentially. As earlier mentioned, veterans and service members die at higher rates per day on average than those who have never served I uniform.
More police officers die by their hand than in the line of duty. The suicide rate for children aged 10 to 14 had risen to more than twice the homicide rate in that age group.
To combat these trends, we encourage these human beings to get support, seek treatment, reach out, and call someone when faced with a crisis. This, despite the fact that most of us cannot fathom the pain they feel or the experiences that brought them to the point of desperation.
But this should also be the case where illnesses are involved, even terrible illnesses that no human being should have to endure. When they do, however, it’s not the place of a doctor or system of care to help end that life — and get paid to do it.
Instead, find more cures. Develop more effective treatments. Enact better policies. No one who claims to be a healer should offer death as if it’s an entree on a menu of options to choose from, depending on how one feels at the moment.
Otherwise, helping someone die can be justified for all of us who live with the most incurable terminal condition: mortality. At best, we all have a natural expiration date that’s hard enough to reconcile as we age.
We ought to let nature do its job, the way human life was meant to end.
No one should be profiting from or stealing credit for carrying out nature’s work.
We repeatedly tell veterans that their lives are worth living, whether they have missing limbs, brain injuries, severe mental deficits, or severe diseases as a result of military service.
Proponents of doctor-assisted “self-killing,” which is what is it, must stop clouding this message by anesthetizing our society to the pain linked to suicide.
Sherman Gillums Jr. served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War, and Global War on Terror eras, and currently serves as the chief strategy officer for AMVETS.