What is dignity when it comes to death?

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/09/what-is-dignity-when-it-comes-to-death/

Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Massachusetts?

Some say the measure helps people seeking to avoid a painful death, others believe unintended consequences could easily arise when insurers are left to choose expensive, life-prolonging treatments or cheap, fatal drugs. What do you believe?

YES

NO

UNDECIDED

Should the terminally-ill be able to get assistance from physicians to end their lives?

No one likes to think about death because, as with all aspects of our lives, we fear loss of control. What if I am in pain? What if I am dependent upon others and don’t want to burden them? At first blush, the argument in favor of doctor-assisted suicide seems compelling – as though it would allow us some measure of control as we depart this life. Supporting this pro-autonomy argument is a societal one – a huge percentage of health care expenses are incurred in the final weeks of life, during which, it often seems, no one is happy: not the patient, not the loved ones, not the accountants paying the bills. Wouldn’t we all be better off cutting this movie short when we all know how it ends?

Though I don’t deny the appeal of these arguments, the consequences of legalizing doctor-assisted suicide – allowing state-sanctioned assistance to what is currently a uniquely unpunishable crime – are likely greater than proponents anticipate, and the purported benefits are largely illusory.

On the individual level, both pain and depression, the most common reasons cited by those seeking to end their lives, are treatable in virtually all cases. And what we tell ourselves is autonomy (that we fear losing) is really just our application of society’s misplaced values – that a person’s value is solely what they can do, not what they are. For many, ego, the need to compare ourselves to others (or to our youthful selves), and self-centeredness tell us that if we are unable to care for ourselves, we are worthless – we’d rather die than let someone care for us.

But when society regards ability, autonomy, or even happiness, as valid measures of whether life is worth living, it implicitly rejects that proposition that all lives have intrinsic worth. What message does that send to the elderly, the disabled (physically or mentally), and others who can’t “contribute” as we narrowly define it?

A paraplegic can’t ever live without assistance, and some with Downs Syndrome will never be fully independent. Some battle mental illness for years, and see no prospect that things will “get better.” We can pretend that we’ll limit the “right to die” to the terminally ill, but the truth is that we are all terminal – “no one is getting out of here alive” as the saying goes. We can say that providing the option of doctor assisted suicide does not require people to avail themselves of that option. But listen to what we are saying to certain people who do not meet our criteria for having a life worth living: “those of us who are healthy, ‘independent’ (as we define it), and ‘productive,’ when of sound mind, would rather be dead than be you, even temporarily.”

Saying in front of an overweight person, “I could never let myself get fat” reveals how you actually feel about that person (though you are speaking only for yourself). In the same way, the societal sentiment, expressed through law, that it is appropriate for those whose lives “lack dignity” to kill themselves, tells the most vulnerable how we really feel about them.

What is particularly strange about the “death with dignity” movement is that it has been pushed largely by so-called “progressives” who in almost all other matters reject the idea that a person’s worth is premised on what they can contribute. Tell a liberal that an able-bodied person does not have a guaranteed right to a particular income, and you are likely to get a lecture on the inherent dignity of all people. And while we can certainly argue about whether, as a matter of social policy that dignity requires a “living wage,” free health care, and cable TV, do we really want to be the sort of society that allows us to help the most vulnerable to die?

There is no question that death is hard, as anyone who has been physically present as someone breathes their last breath (and as I was with my father) can attest. We all want to make it easier, on ourselves, and on our loved ones. But if you take a moment and reflect, “death with dignity” reinforces society’s cold utilitarianism and hard-heartedness that our better natures know is wrong.

Robert N. Driscoll is a native of the Boston area who currently practices law in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his firm. Nor are they the views of his wife, daughters, or greyhounds.

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