EuthanasiaTells Elderly, Disabled: "Your Life is Worthless"

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 2, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

EuthanasiaTells Elderly, Disabled: "Your Life is Worthless"

by Maggie Gallagher Note: Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Oregon is the only state in the union that facilitates suicide. The New York Times’ Science section touts the virtues of the assisted suicide law, which since 1997 has facilitated at least 171 suicides.

The number of people affected by the law is, of course, much larger, whether it is old people comforted by the idea that they can kill themselves, or families forced into intimate discussions of when might be a good time for Grandma to kill herself.

If your father is old and sick in Oregon, the subject of suicide becomes part of the family discussion. Your cousin will raise it as you try together to glimpse the future. Your mom may share her feelings about it with you as she works through the implications of her newfound legal right. If you refuse to treat suicide as a normal possibility, you may be stigmatized as lacking in compassion or respect for her rights. If suicide is a legal choice, then it is a moral option. Thinking through moral options together, that’s what families do, right?

Worse, legal approval of suicide amounts to a declaration to the old, sick and vulnerable that others consider their lives worthless. Dr. Kenneth Stephens, chairman of the department of radiation oncology at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland (who heads Physicians for Compassionate Care), related how his own wife reacted when, as she struggled with cancer, her doctor offered her an overdose of drugs: "He wants me to kill myself," she told her husband.

"It just devastated her that her doctor, her trusted doctor, subtly suggested that," Stephens told The New York Times.

In one case on record, an HMO prescribed an elderly woman lethal drugs in spite of one psychiatrist’s observation that it was her daughter, more than the mother, who wanted it. More than a third of patients, according to the Times, cite fear of burdening their families as a reason for their request.

How common are cases like this? To keep horror out of the headlines, information about assisted suicide in Oregon is tightly controlled, as Wesley Smith pointed out in The Weekly Standard.

The official death certificates are lies, required by law to list the underlying illness as the cause of death, not the actual suicide. Patients are supposed to be mentally competent and within six months of death, but at a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, a psychiatrist disclosed that a patient was prescribed the poison pill despite being diagnosed as having "depressive disorder," "intermittent delirium" and even after "being declared mentally incompetent by a court," according to Smith.

This patient fortunately called Physicians for Compassionate Care instead of swallowing the poison. He died more than a year later, properly treated for depression, with good pain control, surrounded by people who reassured him his life was valuable. With the time he had left, he reconciled with his estranged daughter.

Which is the better, freer, more compassionate society? No law can give or take away the choice to commit suicide. Guns, poisons, noxious fumes, trains — there is simply no way to stop suicide in people healthy enough to swallow. (Oregon’s law requires the patient to self-administer his own poison.)

What Oregon’s suicide laws actually do is convey social approval to individuals contemplating self-destruction, and to their friends and relatives. What advocates of "death with dignity" want is to overcome our cultivated horror at the idea of suicide by giving the decision to self-destruct a quasi-medical veneer.