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.