In “Medical aid in dying is the ultimate religious freedom” (January 10), the Rev. Harlan Limpert employs three main arguments to support assisted suicide. Each argument, however, omits critical contextual information that casts physician-assisted suicide in a very different, more troubling light.
Limpert first focuses on society’s obligation to help people avoid suffering, giving the impression that the experience of intense, unremitting physical pain is a common occurrence and is the primary reason people seek assisted suicide.
In reality, very few people seek assisted suicide to relieve pain and suffering, as shown in studies in both the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Instead, the people seeking assisted suicide are generally upper-middle-class white people who fear losing their autonomy.
A second argument for physician-assisted suicide turns on the blanket claim that legalizing this choice will have no effect on the lives of those who do not make that choice. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The legalization and practice of physician-assisted suicide inevitably produces a host of negative side effects that impact everyone in society. For example, it has been documented that in places where physician-assisted suicide has been legalized, the rate of other forms of suicide also rises.
In addition, whether intended or not, legalizing physician-assisted suicide introduces a subtle, yet powerful negative change in self-perception among various vulnerable populations such as the elderly or the disabled. The “right” to die quickly becomes felt by them as the “duty” to die.
If the quality of our lives or our self-worth is measured in autonomy or independence, then vulnerable populations are naturally seen as not leading lives worth living and as a burden on others.
A third argument paints a picture of physician-assisted suicide as a very limited and well-defined protocol with safeguards that virtually eliminate misuse or abuse. The actual experience elsewhere, however, is revealing.
In places where physician-assisted suicide is legal, what begins as a clearly defined form of voluntary suicide with strict guidelines for use by “competent adults only” quickly morphs into a very loose system where children, the clinically depressed and noncompetent adults are allowed access to lethal medication.
Similarly, and most concerning for the rest of us, the potential abuses of physician-assisted suicide that naturally stem from pressures exerted by those with financial interests (i.e., heirs and health insurance companies) or care-giving responsibilities, none of which can be entirely prevented by procedural “safeguards.”
When care is expensive, and killing is cheap, which do we think will win?
These kinds of easily foreseeable forms of abuse related to cost control have the effect of transforming physician-assisted suicide from a means of exercising personal autonomy into a means by which people are robbed of their autonomy. Protecting the choice of some endangers the choices of the rest of us.
Finally, the author raises the issue of religious liberty, asserting that the primary reason lawmakers across the nation and in Minnesota have refused to legalize physician-assisted suicide is that they are unduly influenced by certain people of faith. Ironically, the author cites his own religious commitments as a primary motive for his advocacy on behalf of physician-assisted suicide.
Apparently, it is not the introduction of religious considerations into the discussion that is the real issue here, but rather the introduction of the “wrong” religious considerations — i.e., those held by “other people of faith.”
Rather than hastening other people’s death, it would be far better for Minnesotans to use our personal and societal energies to address the underlying reasons why some people feel compelled to consider physician-assisted suicide in the first place; to invest in improving the quality of and access to our system of palliative (comfort) care so that no one need suffer unnecessary pain at life’s end; to invest ourselves in building the kinds of deep, personal and caring relationships that remove the fear of becoming a burden to others and lay the foundation for a truly loving and compassionate community.
The Rev. Fredric Hinz is public policy advocate for the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod in Minnesota.