Spring may be here, but death is in the air. At last count, more than 20 states have introduced bills to legalize assisted suicide this year. For comparison, at this time last year, only seven states had done so. That’s a jump of three times the number. What explains the increase?
No doubt some of the increase is connected to the case of Brittany Maynard, whose tragic situation received a great deal of media attention throughout the fall. Brittany was a young woman diagnosed with brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon for the express purpose of taking advantage of Oregon law permitting assisted suicide — she went to Oregon to have assistance in killing herself. Before ending her life, though, she engaged in a social media campaign advocating for the right to assisted suicide throughout the United States and to record her journey toward death.
It’s important first to note that no federal or statewide right to assisted suicide exists in the United States. In fact, the Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings in 1997 that established that our Constitution does not provide such a right, even as “implied” from the “liberty” right in the 14th Amendment.
Most Western courts have refused to imply such rights, until Canada became a recent outlier in February. Courts have understood that recognizing such a right has widespread consequences for society, such as undermining the healing role of the medical profession and giving credence to the notion that some people are “better off dead.” It has been understood that undue pressures may be brought to bear on the sick and elderly if life was not held out as the goal of treatment.
The second thing to notice about the large number of bills seeking to legalize assisted suicide is that this is a move in the opposite direction from our previous choices as a society. Assisted suicide is usually criminalized. In other words, in the overwhelming majority of times and places, most citizens have recognized that making legal the killing of one person by another, even at that person’s request, is a bad idea.
Only three states in the United States have legalized it, one of which is Oregon. To state the obvious — but important — corollary, that means more than three-quarters of the states still prohibit it to this day. Therefore, it is clear that advocates of assisted suicide still have a long way to go to convince the American people that legalized assisted suicide is a good idea.
And it is not a good idea. Despite the empathy we all feel for a suffering person, we should not abandon them. That is what assisted suicide does — it abandons the sufferer to his fate. No doubt, many people who support legalizing assisted suicide think that doing so helps the sufferer. But in the end, it doesn’t. All it does, sadly, is kill them.
Clearly, many people were justifiably moved by the case of Brittany Maynard, but how many know of Kara Tippetts?
Kara, like Brittany, was a young woman diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Like Brittany, Kara went on social media to record her struggle with the disease. And like Brittany, Kara eventually succumbed to the disease. But unlike Brittany, Kara chose not to seek death through assisted suicide. Instead, she chose to open her suffering to the loving actions of others. She urged Brittany in an open letter on the Internet to walk through her experience to the very end with loving people by her side.
Consider Kara’s moving appeal to Brittany: “Dear heart, we simply disagree. Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known. In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those [who] love you the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths.”
Kara treasured every moment of her life, urging Brittany to do the same. And Kara allowed her doctors to accompany her in her journey and to provide her with gentle care in her last moments, as doctors have done for centuries pursuant to the ancient Hippocratic Oath.
None of this is to criticize Brittany or those who loved her; indeed as fellow Americans and as people who also one day will die, our hearts go out to them. But it is to say that when it comes to making public policy, Kara’s was a deeper wisdom. Our obligation as citizens is to help, to heal, to reach out to those who suffer and who face death. This, after all, is the meaning of “compassion,” which means, simply, “to suffer with.”
Assisted suicide, whatever the motives of its proponents, amounts to abandonment. In the public space rightly left by the Supreme Court to the people to decide this momentous issue, we should reject the legalization of assisted suicide.