A right or a wrong?
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 held convictions.
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.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 1, N.1 Fall 1987