By John Triolo, Director of Communications
In last year’s campaign to defeat Ballot Question 2, which would have legalized Doctor-Prescribed Suicide (DPS) in Massachusetts, one of the arguments we advanced against the measure asked people to consider the potential effects of admitting suicide as a recognized treatment for illness. Where would such a course lead us? Where would the journey end?
This argument was not merely another example of DPS opponents employing slippery slope rhetoric. Rather, we were attempting to to raise serious issues of epistemology and taxonomy around DPS. Is there really a way to prevent a medical establishment which has internalized and institutionalized the concept of death-as-treatment from becoming casual about causing (or assisting to cause) death? What would prevent such a cheap and effective (effective in the sense that problems certainly do disappear) “treatment” from gaining wide currency and use in an age that perversely combines nearly unlimited autonomy with the desire to cut costs. Perhaps it would be possible to enact guidelines restricting DPS to “serious cases,” but there are guidelines restricting the use of antibiotics and yet the new prevalence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria would seem to indicate such restrictions are not quite effective. Who is to say what is serious?
Even if Doctor-Prescribed Suicide were legally limited to only those patients suffering from so-called “terminal” illnesses, there would still be no real protections against a steady shift in views. What is a terminal condition? This terminology has been found time and again to be extremely flexible and prognoses (often no more than educated guesses) have been off by months, years, and even decades. This stretches the meaning of the word terminal beyond what ought to be its breaking point. Come to that, isn’t life a terminal condition? Everyone dies after all.
I’m being somewhat flippant with my questions, but not entirely without a purpose. These are questions which need to be addressed by the supporters of DPS. There has yet to be a serious effort on the part of the Death Lobby to take a hard look at the effects of such a radical change to the medical profession and healthcare system. Make no mistake, it is a radical change. Doctor-Prescribed Suicide proposes nothing less than to change the main effort of medicine by making Death, something that medicine is directed at avoiding and postponing, part of the realm of treatment options–giving it a foot in both camps. Death in a DPS system is both an enemy and an ally. Who can blame care providers if the typical lines of battle seem blurred.
One area of particular concern is mental health. The whole point of treating mental illness is to help people live happy lives. Suicide is obviously a primary negative consequence of mental illness and has traditionally been approached as something to be avoided.
No more, at least not everywhere.
According to a recent report in the Daily Mail, a female Belgian “transsexual” has been euthanized as a because of unhappiness resulting from a surgery completing here “transformation” into a man. This clearly disturbed person had a doctor end her life not because she was suffering from a condition which would kill her in any case but rather because of “unbearable” emotional pain endured due to dissatisfaction with the results of a “gender reassignment” operation. This woman deserved treatment, not a syringe of poison but under Belgium’s euthanasia law anyone who claims to be suffering from unbearable pain, even emotional anguish, has the option of death open to them.
Another example of people utilizing euthanasia when clearly making decisions under extreme mental strain is the case of the deaf Belgian twins who had themselves killed when they found they were also going blind. Rather than helping them to learn to live and be happy with their disabilities, the Belgian medical establishment assisted them in their rash and despairing choice to give up on their future.
There are those who will say that this can’t happen here in the United States but are we really so different? When desperately unhappy people come to pro-DPS doctors and demand to be relieved of the burden of living with depression, or anxiety, or despair, what arguments will the physicians use to dissuade them? How will pro-death legislators defend the arbitrary red lines they draw around suicide to separate acceptable medical self-murder from unacceptable. Who in the Death Lobby will be able to construct a logical defense for the narrow assisted suicide regime they claim to support?
In some European countries where DPS is legal, medical suicides account for almost two per cent of deaths. In Oregon where DPS has been legal for a decade the numbers are much lower but there already cases of exceptions being made for cases of mental illness and there are activists, on the fringe still but gaining in numbers, crying out for a more “equitable” system which ensures free and fair access to suicide for all.
There is no way to defend the position that some suicides are wrong unless we are willing to acknowledge as a society that all suicides are wrong. With the proponents of DPS still active in our state–we need to make sure that we don’t learn this lesson the hard way.