A Right or a Wrong?
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
Matthew Donnelly loved life. But Matthew Donnelly wanted to
die. For the past thirty years, Matthew had conducted research
on the use of X-rays. Now, skin cancer riddled his tortured
body. He had lost his nose, his left hand, two fingers on his
right hand, and part of his jaw. He was left blind and was slowly
deteriorating. The pain was unrelenting. Doctors estimated that
he had a year to live. Lying in bed with teeth clenched from
the excruciating pain, he pleaded to be put out of his misery.
Matthew wanted to die now. His pleas went unanswered. Then,
one day, Matthew's brother Harold, unable to ignore Matthew's
repeated cry, removed a .30 caliber pistol from his dresser
drawer, walked to the hospital, and shot and killed his brother.
Harold was tried for murder.
Rapid and dramatic developments in medicine and technology
have given us the power to save more lives than was ever possible
in the past. Medicine has put at our disposal the means to cure
or to reduce the suffering of people afflicted with diseases
that were once fatal or painful. At the same time, however,
medical technology has given us the power to sustain the lives
(or, some would say, prolong the deaths) of patients whose physical
and mental capabilities cannot be restored, whose degenerating
conditions cannot be reversed, and whose pain cannot be eliminated.
As medicine struggles to pull more and more people away from
the edge of death, the plea that tortured, deteriorated lives
be mercifully ended grows louder and more frequent. Californians
are now being asked to support an initiative, entitled the Humane
and Dignified Death Act, that would allow a physician to end
the life of a terminally ill patient upon the request of the
patient, pursuant to properly executed legal documents. Under
present law, suicide is not a crime, but assisting in suicide
is. Whether or not we as a society should pass laws sanctioning
"assisted suicide" has generated intense moral controversy.
Supporters of legislation legalizing assisted suicide claim
that all persons have a moral right to choose freely what they
will do with their lives as long as they inflict no harm on
others. This right of free choice includes the right to end
one's life when we choose. For most people, the right to end
one's life is a right they can easily exercise But there are
many who want to die, but whose disease, handicap, or condition
renders them unable to end their lives in a dignified manner.
When such people ask for assistance in exercising their right
to die, their wishes should be respected.
Furthermore, it is argued, we ourselves have an obligation
to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings and to respect
their dignity. Lying in our hospitals today are people afflicted
with excruciatingly painful and terminal conditions and diseases
that have left them permanently incapable of functioning in
any dignified human fashion. They can only look forward to lives
filled with yet more suffering, degradation, and deterioration.
When such people beg for a merciful end to their pain and indignity,
it is cruel and inhumane to refuse their pleas. Compassion demands
that we comply and cooperate.
Those who oppose any measures permitting assisted suicide
argue that society has a moral duty to protect and to preserve
all life. To allow people to assist others in destroying their
lives violates a fundamental duty we have to respect human life.
A society committed to preserving and protecting life should
not commission people to destroy it.
Further, opponents of assisted suicide claim that society
has a duty to oppose legislation that poses a threat to the
lives of innocent persons. And, laws that sanction assisted
suicide inevitably will pose such a threat. If assisted suicide
is allowed on the basis of mercy or compassion, what will keep
us from "assisting in" and perhaps actively urging, the death
of anyone whose life we deem worthless or undesirable? What
will keep the inconvenienced relatives of a patient from persuading
him or her to "voluntarily" ask for death? What will become
of people who, once having signed a request to die, later change
their minds, but, because of their conditions, are unable to
make their wishes known? And, once we accept that only life
of a certain quality is worth living, where will we stop? When
we devalue one life, we devalue all lives. Who will speak for
the severely handicapped infant or the senile woman?
Finally, it is argued that sanctioning assisted suicide would
violate the rights of others. Doctors and nurses might find
themselves "pressured" to cooperate in a patient's suicide.
In order to satisfy the desires of a patient wanting to die,
it's unjust to demand that others go against their own deeply
The case for assisted suicide is a powerful one--appealing
to our capacity for compassion and an obligation to support
individual choice and self determination. But, the case against
assisted suicide is also powerful for it speaks to us of a fundamental
reverence for life and the risk of hurling down a slippery slope
toward a diminished respect for life. With legislation in the
offing, we're compelled to choose which values are most important
and to cast our vote.