Value of life

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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?




Nov. 1, 2015

Last month, the Massachusetts Legislature heard heart-wrenching testimony from the terminally ill and the disabled, as well as moving accounts of end-of-life situations. It was the run up to the debate over H 1991, a bill legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide. The bill, if passed, would make Massachusetts the sixth state in the nation to affirm a legal “right to die.”

The hearings at the State House were supposed to shed light on the bill’s pros and cons and, clearly, emotions ran high. For many not (yet) directly affected by end of life questions, the resolution of the debate and the final vote on the bill will bring into focus the nature of the society in which we live. In the end, the acceptance or rejection of the bill will tell us less about an individual’s inherent “right to die” than about our own views of the “value of life.”

During November, we will pay considerable attention to the political debates surrounding the proposed legislation, as well as to grassroots lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue. But because the “right to die” raises important questions about human dignity and the value of human life, we will also devote significant coverage this month to the social and cultural implications of the movement.

Keeping in mind that many of those who advocate for doctor prescribed suicide do so out of fear of pain, suffering, and loss of control and dignity, we will attempt to provide a context for the emergence of such fears. We will examine the place of the elderly and the disabled in our society and the general loss of connectedness that often leads to a sense of loneliness and despair. And we will investigate the danger of accounting for cost efficiency when it comes to evaluating human life. Is there any doubt that poor and the elderly will be the first to claim their “right to die” when living longer inevitably translates into higher costs?

We will also tell stories of families, institutions and individuals who have dealt with end-of-life situations in inspiring ways, allowing love and dignity to prevail. We hope to share stories that show how families, friends, and neighbors of the infirm and the impaired can give value to an individual’s life. And, last but not least, we want to emphasize the importance of appreciating the elderly and their stories and thus challenge a youth-focused and cost-conscious culture that often views the elderly as a burden.

What makes our discussion of the “right to die” especially challenging is our cultural focus on individual rights at the expense of a supportive social fabric. According to ethicist Leon Kass in Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, this is typical of Western liberal societies where “human beings look first to the rights of individuals.” This focus on individual preference has a worrisome effect on our entire political culture. “Truth to tell,” writes Kass, “public discourse about moral matters in the United States is much more impoverished by our eagerness to transform questions of the right and the good into questions about individual rights.”

Ultimately, we ask readers to consider the question of what gives value to human life — to our own lives and to those of the elderly, the sick, and the dying.  And we seek to identify those aspects of community that are failing, making an individual’s “right to die” more attractive than the “love of life.”

— Tina McCormick

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