Trading on our Worst Fears to Find a Justification for Assisted Suicide

By Dave Andrusko

An op-ed for TIME magazine by two bioethicist from a notoriously anti-life think tank lays out the case that when reliable tests can detect the very beginnings of Alzheimer’s, it will be “time to listen to and take seriously those people who, upon seeing their own parents spend years, even decades, suffering with Alzheimer’s, say that they refuse to expose their partner or children to the same.”

Erik Parens is a Senior Research Scholar at The Hastings Center and Josephine Johnston is a Research Scholar at the same think tank. The headline to their op-ed tells the reader where they are headed: “As Tests to Predict Alzheimer’s Emerge, So May Debates Over the Right to Die.”

They tell us—way too happily for my taste—that “Tests are coming that promise to detect the beginning of Alzheimer’s before symptoms of dementia have developed, when the individual is still lucid and competent.” There is a throwaway paragraph explaining why such a diagnosis does not necessarily mean a baby boomer should have a “frank discussion” about assisted suicide and a second about a possible “slippery slope.” But that’s just filler.

From the first two sentences—“Jack Kevorkian’s fervid fascination with death made him a deeply unattractive human being. Yet he forced us to confront questions that, much as we might want to, we cannot ignore”—the message is unmistakable. Once a test is available it will be swooped up by aging baby boomers. And rightly so, clearly, in their view.

Pro-euthanasia sources know that beyond opposition from the religious community, the number one obstacle to carrying the day is the very correct conclusion that suicide—with or without assistance—is a cry for help and most often a symptom of depression. That is why Alzheimer’s is a godsend—in a manner of speaking.

“When it becomes possible to detect Alzheimer’s disease before it has progressed,” they write, arguments about assisted suicide “will no longer be academic. The question for our society, including our legal system, medical practitioners, religious institutions and patient support groups, is whether we will dismiss those who make these arguments as depressed and misguided or whether we will engage with them on their terms.”

But what might stop us from this “discussion”? What else? “Fear.” We need to get past childish fears about “planning for the future”—planning an assisted suicide.

And besides, they assured us, “Asking policy makers, clinicians, disease advocates and others to start taking this possibility seriously doesn’t mean we have any neat answers to the myriad, profound questions it raises. We don’t.” (Actually they do, but pretend not to.)

In light of how strenuously they make the case for assisted suicide should an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis be  made, their last sentence is absurd on its face: “We do believe, however, that we have an ethical obligation to face these questions, in solidarity with the millions of individuals and families who otherwise will have to face them alone.”

Solidarity is not writing an op-ed that pit grandparents against their own kids (“saddling them with that expense”) and their grandchildren (the money that goes to nursing homes could be “used for their grandchildren’s education”). Nor is knitting the generations together to pretend that we are “honoring” anything by assuring older people that in choosing an assisted suicide is “the way of dying that fits best with their understanding of a good life.”

The trail of nightmarish proposals from the Hastings Center never ends.

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