Against Assisted Suicide

Last week, after a long and emotional floor debate, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill that would legalize assisted suicide in the State. Today, the Senate committee considering the bill could vote to advance it to the full Senate.

This means that we Marylanders could be just a few steps away from living in a society that enables terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

What does the bill do?

According to the Maryland Catholic Conference, the bill “would allow terminally ill patients to be prescribed a lethal dose of a controlled dangerous substance, which they would then pick-up at their local pharmacy and ingest without medical supervision to end their life.”

The Conference goes on to argue that “This bill, in addition to having no regard for the worth and dignity of every human life, establishes suicide as a societal norm, places large quantities of Schedule II prescription drugs into our communities with no measures in place for take-back or disposal, and leaves those suffering from mental illness, persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and our elderly at risk of coercion and undue influence by family members or caregivers.”

Where might this lead?

Advocates of assisted suicide focus on a narrow and short-sighted solution to what is a worthy goal: relieving the suffering of terminally ill individuals. In pursuing their solution, they dismiss concerns about the grave and lasting damage it could do to our society in the long run.

Here’s where this bill might one day lead:

  • To a health insurance industry that has little patience for efforts aimed at extending the lives or improving the experiences of patients who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses.
  • To a medical culture that encourages terminally ill people to end their lives, just as it already encourages the parents of unborn children with illnesses or deformities to abort.
  • To a society that is bolder in its utilitarianism – valuing individuals not for their own sake, but according to what they can do for the rest of us.
  • To a culture that encourages ill and old people to end their lives, that views those who want to live on in their suffering as selfish – as takers of resources, as wanting to drag their families along with them in their suffering.
  • To the expansion of assisted suicide laws, enabling minors and those with mental illnesses, even depression, to end their lives. (Indeed, this has already come to pass in some European countries.)

What impact might it have on families?

My grandmother died in September.

She was 95, a fiercely independent and stubborn lady who lived on her own until the last two weeks of her life. She died of an infection that her body was too frail to fight, so thankfully, she did not suffer long.

But she did suffer. And our family watched, suffering with her.

Some forty hours before she died, I sat by my Mom-mom’s bed, surrounded by over a dozen family members, and I watched her breathe.

In and out, in and out, slowly, haltingly – she labored to breathe. I watched her dry lips, her closed eyes, her skin that seemed to stretch ever tighter over her fragile, precious bones. I watched each breath, wondering if it would be her last.

I watched each breath, wanting and not wanting it to be her last.

In the months since my grandmother’s death, I have felt regret and gratitude in almost equal measure. There is so much to unpack. How we lived, how she died. What went unsaid, what went undone. All the love that was poured out and spread around.

But in the wake of last week’s vote in the House of Delegates, I have found something new to be grateful for: that while my grandmother was dying and our family was dealing with her decline, we were in a place and time and situation where assisted suicide was not an option.

What a luxury. What a gift.

I am so grateful that we got to deal with my grandmother’s illness and death without wrangling over the question of whether she wanted to end her life, or whether loved ones wanted her to put a stop to her suffering, or whether doctors thought that the most prudent course. We were so lucky to not have those questions hanging over our heads.

Discussion around assisted suicide primarily focuses on the physical suffering of terminally ill individuals. But I fear that in reality, it will have a much broader impact on the emotional and spiritual suffering of entire families.

I fear that, if passed, this legislation will lead to suffering that won’t end with the death of the sick person. I fear that it will cause suffering that lives on in families, trickling down through generations.

If families can be divided by property disputes and ill-chosen words, imagine the damage that will result from disagreements over how and when a beloved family member should die.

Imagine the anguish of children who don’t want to see their mom end her own life. Or the anguish of a mother who wonders if it’s time to stop being a burden to her children. Or the anguish of a family in which some desperately want dad to hang on and others think it’s time for him to be done.

What can we control?

Besides that (worthy) goal of alleviating suffering, advocates of assisted suicide aim for another goal: control. They want terminally ill patients to be able to control their own end.

But there’s another element of control that must be considered when it comes to assisted suicide – control over the thing itself.

Supporters of the legislation will say that it includes sufficient safeguards, that the choice to end one’s life will belong to the patient alone – not her doctors, not her insurers, not her family.

But there’s only so much they can control.

They can’t control what kind of pressures patients will experience. They can’t distinguish between overt coercion and the low-grade kind that builds up over time.

They can’t control the shift of societal opinion towards death as duty. They can’t control how the medical and insurance industries will react, and even use, that shift to their own ends.

And they can’t control what kind of impact assisted suicide – even the option of assisted suicide – will have on families. If for no other reason than this, let’s encourage the Maryland Senate to set aside this legislation.

Let’s allow families dealing with the grave illness of a loved one to handle their situation without the burden of struggling with another, perhaps longer-lasting, kind of pain.

 

If you are a resident of Maryland who would like to register opposition to this legislation, please visit the website of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Against Assisted Suicide

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.