by Matthew Boardman
Physician-assisted suicide is a controversial subject with a staggering amount of ethical, moral and legal concerns revolving around it.
Determining what stance to take is made especially difficult considering religious and secular arguments are made from both sides of the issue. Currently only three states—Oregon, Washington and Vermont—have laws permitting physician-assisted suicide, according to the Death With Dignity National Center.As Whitworth is a Christian university, perhaps it is best to delve into the Christian perspectives first.
Christians opposed to physician-assisted suicide may cite verses as proof that the Bible condemns all suicide as sin. One such example is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”
The question for some Christians is in the interpretation and application of such verses. The message that ending one’s life before its natural end is sacrilegious seems clear. However, a person with a terminal illness or other condition that is guaranteed to end his or her life prematurely is already facing a natural death. Is it a sin then to forego the painful last days in turn for a death of peace and dignity?
Answering questions about physician-assisted suicide from a Christian standpoint is naturally very difficult because so much depends on personal interpretation. What, then, can be said about the ethics of physician-assisted suicide?
The most recent and perhaps most publicized case of physician-assisted suicide occurred several months ago in Oregon, when Brittany Maynard wrote an open letter about why she was choosing to use physician-assisted suicide.
“There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live,” Maynard said in an interview discussing her choice. “I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not… My glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying…I believe this choice is ethical, and what makes it ethical is it is a choice. The patient can change their mind up to the last minute.”
Maynard stated the key to the ethical debate of physician-assisted suicide: it is ethical because it is a choice. It will never be forced upon someone. Additionally, hospitals and physicians cannot be required to provide end of life care, according to the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA). Choice is a vital element of the ethics of physician-assisted suicide, however, it is equally true that the act itself is the end of all choices.
A misconception about physician-assisted suicide is that it would increase suicide rates because the state would suddenly be making suicide more easily accessible.
According to Washington’s Department of Health, adults seeking to end their lives through the Death with Dignity Act must be “terminally ill patients . . . who have less than six months to live.” Other failsafes include mental health evaluations to ensure that a patient interested in end of life care is of a sound mind, according to WSHA’s End of Life Care Manual. Furthermore, patients must request physician-assisted suicide three set times over the course of several weeks as part of the process.
As a final check, all eligibility requirements must be verified by two physicians.
Following the same topic, one concern that involves ethical, moral and logistic considerations is timing. What if a cure is discovered the day after a person chooses to end his or her life? The thought can make one pause. However, such an event is highly improbable. Cures take time to develop, and more importantly, a patient who is eligible for prescribed lethal medication is, in all likelihood, past the point where a cure could reverse the illness.
All of these concerns are important, and that is why the legislation restricting eligibility for physician-assisted suicide is intended to address them.
The restrictive eligibility requirements also preserve the cumulative sense of the sanctity of life. Doctor-assisted suicide cannot be made freely available under the ideals of free choice because the value of life must be preserved for the well-being of society. Life is sacred, and making doctor-assisted suicide readily available would be unethical and destructive to the mental health of the collective American psyche.
In the legal arena, physician-assisted suicide has been tested time and again since it first became active in Oregon in 1997. The greatest trial for Death with Dignity was the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in 2006 that Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act is constitutional, according to the Death with Dignity National Center. The court’s decision provides a definitive answer to the question of whether or not physician-assisted suicide is legal.
Society must balance freedom of choice with responsibility. It must collectively decide what actions belong to each individual and what actions are taboo because their permittance is too harmful to the well-being of society. Suicide is, by traditional western standards, taboo because of the toll it can take on others and other cultural issues.
Physician-assisted suicide is different.
Life is precious, but what makes it worth living is the experiences—physical, spiritual or otherwise. I do not advocate suicide as a solution for any situation, far from it, but I do believe that it is up to individual choice—checked by personal beliefs, family, friends and legislative guards—to decide if the final stages of a terminal illness are personally worth experiencing. There should always be choice.
Contact Matthew Boardman at firstname.lastname@example.org