Aid in Dying

In 1994, Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The Bush administration filed a lawsuit to overturn the referendum, but lost at the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, despite this victory, for many years Oregon stood alone in allowing doctors to ease their patients’ passing. But that’s now starting to change:

In January, a district court in New Mexico authorized doctors to provide lethal prescriptions and declared a constitutional right for “a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying.” Last May, the Vermont Legislature passed a law permitting it, joining Montana, Oregon and Washington.

As humanists, we should applaud this. The New Mexico court got it exactly right: there is and should be a fundamental moral right for a person to receive aid in dying. This right stems from the core value of autonomy, the principle that we own our own lives and can steer them as we wish. And just as freedom of religion includes the right to choose no religion at all, autonomy over one’s own life encompasses the choice to stop living, if suffering has become too great to endure.

Obviously, we don’t need a court to make this a reality. There are many ways for able-bodied people to end their lives without a doctor’s help, and even wheelchair-bound or bedridden people can choose to stop eating and drinking (as Tony Nicklinson did). But there’s no reason why a person who wishes to end their life should be denied humane and reliable means to do it.

Of course, there are people who are against all of this, and you’ve probably guessed who’s leading the opposition:

“The church teaches that life is sacred from conception through to natural death,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., told legislators at a recent breakfast as he criticized the court decision there.

“This assisted-suicide thing concerns me,” Archbishop Sheehan added, according to The New Mexican. “I foresee dangerous consequences.”

You see, the church disapproves of assisted dying – and as far as they care, that should be the only thing that matters. It’s not enough for them to preach their beliefs to those who willingly show up to hear them; they want the opinions of a handful of unelected bishops to be the basis for law in a secular, pluralistic democracy. In this case, they claim, the “sacredness” of life necessitates keeping people alive against their will to prolong their suffering.

And Sheehan isn’t even the worst of the lot. PZ points to an even more horrible ad from a Catholic organization, the American Life League, which claims that a slow and painful death is an “opportunity to participate in the passion of Jesus Christ”, and euthanasia “selfishly steals” that opportunity. (Here’s the original source.)

What these comments amount to is the worship of pain and suffering: treating a drawn-out death not as an evil to be avoided, but as a blessing to be welcomed. (No surprise, really, coming from a faith whose icon and symbol is a man suffering one of the most excruciating deaths imaginable.) And although the ad doesn’t address this, it’s hard to imagine why this same logic wouldn’t apply to the use of painkillers in general. Wouldn’t giving morphine to cancer sufferers, say, also “steal” their exciting opportunity to suffer the same way that Jesus suffered while he was being tortured to death?

What makes this much worse is that there’s a serious problem of Catholic hospitals gobbling up secular chains and then imposing their religious views on non-consenting patients. So far this has hit women the hardest, denying life-saving abortion care to miscarrying women or emergency contraception to rape victims, but if laws permitting physician-assisted dying become more widespread, it’s all but certain that this battle will spread to a second front. As I’ve already mentioned, the bishops have banned voluntary end-of-life measures at Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, a directive which seemingly implies that they’d ignore a patient’s wishes not to be kept alive with respirators or feeding tubes (notwithstanding the obvious legal jeopardy a hospital would be in if it crammed a feeding tube down someone’s throat against their will).

As with many other issues, this is an area where the decrees of the church hierarchy clash sharply with the opinions of most people, and that’s something humanists should exploit. Although support fluctuates depending on how the question is worded, polls have found that as many as 70% of Americans support allowing doctors to assist in granting terminally ill people a painless death. When we point out that church officials are seeking to deny others this freedom, while we support the right of choice and self-determination, it’s a contrast that will work to our advantage.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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