Compassion That’s Not
Writing in America Magazine, Jean Welch Hill, director of the ominously-named Peace and Justice Commission for the [Roman Catholic] diocese of Salt Lake City argues against peace and justice for the terminally ill:
Imagine telling someone who is unable to walk that their life no longer has value. Or telling a loved one who needs help eating that they have lost all dignity. Or explaining to a friend that you can’t visit them anymore because their illness has made them unattractive.
Few would say any of these to a stranger, let alone a loved one. Yet the message of assisted suicide amounts to telling people who have lost the ability to function as they have in the past that they should just cease to exist. This has been the message we have heard for three years in Utah from proponents of assisted suicide legislation.
The definition of dignity implied in these proposed laws, which have followed the Oregon model, is not about the inherent worth of the person but about their physical state. We should keep in mind the great injustices that occur when we decide that human worth depends on perceived mental capacity or physical attributes.
This, I am afraid, is at best misleading and at worst dishonest.
What assisted suicide is really about is enabling terribly ill people to decide for themselves that enough is enough. It is about autonomy, it is about dignity and, often, it is about the ability to bring terrible pain to an end.
Of course, there are many who have profound religious and philosophical objections to the idea of assisted suicide (even when it is accompanied with the sort of safeguards seen in Oregon). They are free to stand by those principles up to the very end. But to insist, by force of law, that others should do likewise is coercion, not compassion, a coercion made worse by the condescension in which it is wrapped. These poor dying folk, you see, are simply incapable of deciding what is right for themselves.
After all, they might even be nuts.
[M]ost terminally ill patients will overcome these fears with proper mental health care. Britain’s “Care Not Killing” Alliance cites a 2006 study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in which almost all patients who sought assisted suicide changed their minds after competent and effective ongoing psychiatric treatment.
It’s worth adding that in 2014, the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a statement on assisted dying for the terminally ill that ended as follows (my emphasis added):
As individuals and citizens we also cannot fail to acknowledge that notwithstanding our appropriate cautions and caveats, there will still be those who continue to believe that their current circumstances are unendurable and unacceptable. Each of us will have our views on how we should respond to these situations. We do not think that the College should take a specific position on this. Finally, the decision on whether to legalise physician assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament and the Courts. The only position the College takes on this matter at present is that we will always act within the law.
As is usual in this debate, Ms. Hill isn’t slow to start talking about the slippery slope, citing some (genuinely troubling, at least as presented) data from The Netherlands, which it is claimed show that doctors, not patients, are taking the decision to end patients’ lives. That’s very wrong, and the answer to it is well-crafted legislation. But to use the slippery slope as an argument against the autonomy of those who have slid very far down a hideous slope of their own is to add insult to appalling injury.
Hill concludes with a call for better care for those at the end of life, noting, not inaccurately, that it is not always available. She wants, she claims, to “fix the existing problems within our health care system and allow all people to truly die with dignity.” The first half of that sentence may be sincere, but it is also boilerplate. The second half is disingenuous.
When Ms. Hill claims that she want to allows all people to “die with dignity”, she does so only on her own terms, something that those patients who disagree with her definition of dignity will find horribly arrogant and unforgivably cruel.
And they will be right to do so.