Seeing as how I haven’t opened a can of worms on here in at least a week, I thought that perhaps it was time to talk about assisted suicide and the right to die movement. It’s a topic I haven’t really addressed very much here, in part because the right to die movement in California is extremely dormant, so it’s not brought to the forefront of my mind.
It may come as no surprise to learn that I support the right to choose the time and place of your death, and that I think that assisted suicide laws are humane and appropriate, and I wish that we had a law here in California which would allow people to access assisted suicide. But I also think that assisted suicide is an extremely tricky issue, and that it needs to be handled with care.
One of the most common, and very valid, criticisms that I see of the right to die movement is that it devalues the lives of disabled individuals. I think that in some cases, that’s probably true, because assisted suicide opens up the possibility of asking people why they don’t opt for suicide, but instead choose to live. For people who are not familiar with disability, and the wide spectrum of disabilities, I can definitely see how legalization of assisted suicide would devalue the lives of the disabled, because it would seem to imply that people who are severely disabled should kill themselves. And I can understand also how some people with disabilities would feel devalued by a legitimization of assisted suicide.
But I don’t think, and I sincerely hope that members of the right to die movement also don’t think think, that people with disabilities would be better off dead. The movement is primarily about people with terminal illnesses, not about rampaging around killing off the disabled, or about forcing assisted suicide on someone else. In fact, I am horrified by the suggestion that people with serious disabilities should just kill themselves, because obviously, they shouldn’t. People with a wide variety of disabilities, including very extreme ones, can live rich, full lives, and I would never presume to tell someone else that he or she should choose suicide rather than a happy life.
I do think that someone who is struggling with an extremely painful terminal illness should, however, have the right to euthanasia. To a peaceful and controlled death, rather than months of suffering. This is not to say that I think we should run around killing terminal cancer patients; I think it’s an individual and personal choice, and that people need to make it on their own. Not with pressure from family members or doctors. Independently, and with complete information about the situation and all of the options.
As with abortion, assisted suicide is troubling when people make the choice for financial or social reasons. I do not want people to kill themselves to save their family money, out of fear of homelessness, or because they feel like they have no other options. I do want people to be able to make an informed decision to control the timing of their deaths, however, if that is something they are interested in doing. I think that assisted suicide is an option which is appropriate to have on the table in some settings, and that to deny it to patients is to infringe upon their rights as individuals, just as killing a disabled person because care becomes burdensome is a horrific violation of human rights.
This issue was brought up with me recently when I was talking with someone about ALS. ALS is one of my worst nightmares. The idea that my body could slowly become paralyzed and nonfunctional while my brain is trapped inside until my respiratory tract finally paralyzes and I go into arrest frightens me, to the core. I literally have nightmares about it. I am fairly confident that if I was diagnosed with ALS, I would definitely make suicide plans, assisted or not, so that when I reached the point of debilitating incapacitation, I could die peacefully and without fear.
But that’s my own choice, not one which needs to be imposed on others. I have respect for people who disagree with me, and would never choose that, because fundamentally, the right to die is about personal choice and empowerment. We should be able to control what happens to our own bodies, and when it happens, and how it happens. For some people, that might be allowing nature to take its course. Others might prefer aggressive medical interventions to keep themselves alive as long as possible. Some might prefer a hybrid which provides treatment and analgesia, with the goal of keeping the patient comfortable, but not necessarily facilitating death. Some people opt to sign a DNR, which is a form of assisted suicide in my opinion. Others, like me, might prefer to avoid intense and pointless pain and suffering, and to take active measures if the situation calls for it, rather than passive ones like a DNR; if I am so paralyzed that I cannot communicate, I don’t see that being beneficial for anyone.
The right to die and abortion issues are closely intertwined, because they involve a lot of overlapping medical issues. Fundamentally, I see both as being about choice, with one side believing that people should not be allowed the freedom to choose, while the other side supports education and empowered choice. And both bring up ethical issues which are profoundly uncomfortable. For example, I believe that infanticide is a deplorable crime, but I don’t equate it with abortion. Yet, is it ok for parents to abort a baby in the third trimester if it has a severe disability, but that disability is not incompatible with life? What about in the second trimester? The first? These are things that I struggle with, and I can see why the simplicity of the anti-choice movement is appealing, because people can answer difficult ethical questions like these with “of course, it’s never ok,” but I don’t think the answer is that easy to reach.
I believe that people should have the right to choose life, and the right to choose death. And I also believe that people do not have the right to impose their choices and beliefs on others.