The British Parliament is currently considering the legalization of assisted suicide. The act under consideration was introduced by Lord Falconer and eschews the term “suicide,” preferring instead the euphemism “assisted dying.” Under current British law outlined in the 1961 Suicide Act, it is a crime to encourage or assist another in the act of suicide. The Falconer Assisted Dying Bill would carve out an exception for doctors to prescribe a lethal cocktail of drugs if the patient requests it, is thought to have six months or less to live, and is determined to be mentally competent.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales strongly oppose this legislation as does the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. They are joined in their opposition by Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Jain faith leaders. In addition, the British Medical Association unequivocally opposes the legalization of assisted suicide.
There is, however, considerable support for the bill as well. In a somewhat surprising move, the British Medical Journal editorial board dissented from the British Medical Association stance and declared that physician-assisted suicide should be legal because, in their opinion, “choice” is the most important principle of medical ethics. Likewise, several prominent Anglican leaders including former Archbishop Canterbury Lord Carey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have rejected the official Church of England position and publicly support the passage of the Falconer Assisted Dying legislation.
Those who support the Assisted Dying Act frame their position as being about compassion. The thought of people helplessly suffering at the end of their lives is intolerable, supporters claim, so the merciful thing to do is to allow doctors to help such patients end their lives. In testimony before the House of Lords, speaker after speaker offered anecdotes of friends and loved ones in misery at the end of their lives. Baroness Wheatcroft went so far as to say that when her mother was dying of leukemia, if someone had handed her a gun she would have pulled the trigger and ended her mother’s life.
This last statement actually illustrates the concern many opponents of the legislation voice. Had Baroness Wheatcroft actually taken her mother’s life, it would be an act of euthanasia, which, while still morally problematic, is not the same as assisted suicide. Once one is accepted, the path to the other is cleared. The slippery slope argument rightly warns that the use of assisted suicide will necessarily expand from those whose death is imminent to those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. After all, is their suffering any more tolerable or acceptable? Why should those who are unable to administer their own lethal medication be forced to suffer? And what about those who are unable to voice their desire for death? Shouldn’t the state be able to make that decision for them? The newly sworn in health minister of Lithuania suggested as much when she said that euthanasia is a viable option for the poor who cannot afford palliative care.
As persuasive as the slippery slope argument may be, it is not the strongest argument against assisted suicide. If one looks at the most recent annual report of the use of physician-assisted suicide in the state of Washington, USA, one sees that physical suffering is not the primary reason patients request medications for suicide. Some 91% of the patients who were dispensed lethal medication expressed concerns about loss of autonomy; 89% anticipated that they would no longer be able to participate in activities that make life enjoyable; 79% feared the loss of dignity.
It is mental anguish, not physical suffering, that is the impetus for most patients requesting physician-assisted suicide. The legalization of assisted suicide suggests these fears are reasonable and hastening death is a viable solution. There is nothing compassionate about legalizing assisted suicide when it promotes such abject despair.
In every other instance, suicide is viewed as a tragedy. Those left behind often wonder what they could have done or said to prevent such an act of desperation. How could they have given the deceased hope and fostered a will to live? Why should it be any different for the infirm, the disabled, and the dying?
Instead of hastening their death we should be offering authentic compassion. The word “compassion” literally means to suffer with. We should be reassuring those who are tempted by assisted suicide that even though they are physically broken they have dignity and are cherished members of our human family.
In the words of Pope Francis, “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
In contrast, promoting assisted suicide sends a message to those who are chronically ill, disabled or dying that their lives are a burden and it would be better for everyone if they were dead. This viewpoint was explicitly stated by Lady Warnock, a supporter of the assisted suicide bill, when she declared, “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service…Actually I’ve just written an article called ‘A Duty to Die?’ for a Norwegian periodical. I wrote it really suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself.”
Perhaps this is why groups representing the disabled are so vigorously opposed to the assisted suicide legislation, fearing that what initially is an option to die will quickly deteriorate into a perceived duty to die.
The current debate in the British Parliament reveals two competing worldviews. The supporters of assisted suicide conclude that human life has no intrinsic dignity and is valued according to its utility and absence of suffering. Opponents of assisted suicide appreciate the dignity and value of all human life, even life that is infirm or disabled.
It is important that we do more than verbalize this latter viewpoint. It must be lived. Those who face a loss of independence due to infirmity must have the humility to realize that there is still value in giving others an opportunity to be empathetic and generous. Those who are healthy must step up and embrace this opportunity to affirm the value of those whose death is likely imminent and offer unconditional love and support.
Only by such examples can we dispel the fears of the dying and end the demand for physician-assisted suicide.