By Maria Gallagher, Legislative Director
Her body had been emaciated, but her spirit soared on. With all the strength she could muster, my mother gingerly walked across the rehabilitation center floor, I had never been prouder of her. From an outsider’s point of view, the cancer seemed to be winning, but in that moment, my mother was victorious. She was dying, but she was not dead yet, and she planned to live for as long as she naturally could.
My mother embraced life because she saw it was inherently good-even with the oxygen tank that stood by her side, even though she needed pain medication. She willed to live valiantly and heroically whatever days she had left. Her courageous example inspired her daughters, her sisters-in-law, and the physical therapists at the nursing facility where she spent her last days under hospice care.
She did not believe in a blanket right to doctor-prescribed suicide-and neither does the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court ruled in 1997 that there is no constitutional right to so-called “assisted suicide,” upholding state bans on the practice. Yet, the old Hemlock Society, now under the name “Compassion and Choices,” is trying to throw out long-standing, time-tested laws in Pennsylvania and across the country by legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide nationwide. Keep in mind that the American Medical Association opposes the lethal practice, as does the World Medical Association.
We have only to look to a state that has legalized doctor-prescribed suicide, Oregon, to see the dangers inherent in such statutes. The phrase “six months to live” can be a real misdiagnosis, leading to suicides by those who are not actually terminally ill. A patient may feel financial or emotional pressure to end his or her life prematurely, meaning that the patient is not making a free choice at all. Most people turn to doctor-prescribed suicide because they fear the loss of autonomy–becoming a “burden” to family members.
Interestingly enough, statistics show pain is rarely a reason why people choose doctor-prescribed suicide. In fact, in Oregon, there is not one documented case of assisted suicide being used for untreatable pain. Ninety percent of suicides in the U.S. are associated with mental illness, most often depression, according to the Institute of Medicine’s report: Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative. Yet, in 2012, only two of 77 assisted suicide victims received psychological counseling.
The political campaign for doctor-prescribed suicide is especially dangerous for people with disabilities. The Disability Rights and Education Fund states, “Financial pressures already play far too great a role in many, if not most, health care decisions. Direct coercion is not even necessary. If insurers deny, or even merely delay, approval of expensive, life-giving treatments that patients need, patients will, in effect, be steered toward assisted suicide, if it is legal.”
One chilling example is the case of Barbara Wagner, a cancer patient who was told the Oregon Health Plan would not pay for her chemotherapy, but would foot the bill if she opted for doctor-prescribed suicide. In such circumstances, it’s not hard to see how the so-called right to die can become the duty to die.
True compassion for people facing life-threatening illness is effective pain relief, palliative care, and treatment for those suffering from depression. We don’t need Oregon’s failed assisted suicide experiment in Pennsylvania.
Editor’s note. This appeared at paprolife.us/blog