On Wednesday, the Minnesota Senate’s Health, Human Services and Housing Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a measure called the Minnesota Compassionate Care Act (SF 1880). This bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients. Those patients would then have the option to ingest the drugs and kill themselves. SF 1880 is sponsored by a group of DFL legislators, led by Sen. Chris Eaton of Brooklyn Center, who claims that assisted suicide enjoys “overwhelming support” from the American public.
This is overconfidence. The truth about assisted suicide is that it 1) takes time to understand and that it 2) turns political stereotypes on their head.
Let’s go back to June 2012, five months before the elections that year. Massachusetts has assisted suicide on the ballot. Polls indicate “overwhelming support” in that liberal state: 68 percent support legalizing it, while 19 percent favor its remaining illegal.
But then something remarkable happened. The people of Massachusetts began to understand the issue.
Support of assisted suicide is thought to be a liberal idea, but supporters often sound quite conservative. “I want my personal freedom! Government stay out of my life! My individual rights trump your view of the common good!”
The summer of 2012 saw Massachusetts liberals calling this out. Victoria Kennedy, wife of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, published a piece titled “Question 2 Insults Kennedy’s Memory.” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. also wrote a piece arguing against the measure, “Liberals Should be Wary of Assisted Suicide.” Disability-rights and physicians groups also were fundamentally opposed.
The result? In a mere five months, the liberal case defeated assisted suicide.
Virtually everyone is sympathetic in cases of extreme and unbearable pain, but palliative care and terminal sedation now can keep patients from feeling it. Indeed, physical pain doesn’t even make the top five reasons people choose assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide is more about not wanting to be a burden on others and having control over how one dies. But especially in a culture that prizes autonomy and freedom, it just isn’t clear — once we open the door — how we can put limits on this choice. Why, as in the case of Oregon, limit it to those who will die within six months? Why not six years? Why must one be terminally ill at all? If it’s simply “their choice,” why any limitation?
Think this is scaremongering? Consider the Netherlands, a country with a similar love for individual autonomy, which has had euthanasia for two generations. It first was permitted only in a case of “hopeless and unbearable suffering.” But two years ago an otherwise healthy woman, who asked to die because she was going blind, was euthanized. Thousands of Dutch have called for euthanasia for people over 70 who are “tired of life.” Along with those who argue for assisted suicide in Minnesota, the dominant value in the Netherlands is personal freedom and choice. Who are we to judge?
Against the individualist approach, liberals focus on how policies impact vulnerable people who are pushed to the margins. In a youth-worshiping and capitalist culture, older people are understood as a drain or burden on their families and society. Hardly surprising, then, that older people would feel “tired of life” and seek a way out. But it is diabolical to make it easier for vulnerable people on the margins to kill themselves. Good liberals must absolutely affirm the goodness of their existence — especially when the surrounding culture can make them feel unwanted and burdensome.
Cracks are already starting to form in the policies of states with legalized assisted suicide. In Oregon, physicians have witnessed depressed patients receiving deadly drugs. Minnesota’s bill follows Oregon in requiring that death be fewer than six months away. But Jeannette Hall, who at first requested assisted suicide after being told she had six months to live, is alive today (15 years later) because she kept fighting.
Yes, our health care system has terrible gaps that cause tremendous suffering for patients and their families. But the proper response, especially from liberals, should be to work to reform. Let’s kill the pain, not the patient. Care and accompaniment must trump violence and abandonment.
Charles Camosy is a professor of bioethics at Fordham University.