Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Must Try Harder (2)

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, a Roman Catholic priest, Tadeusz Pacholczyk, tries to throw in (I think) a little irony in support of his church’s campaign against assisted suicide:

In the November elections, voters in Massachusetts will decide on “Question 2,” a ballot initiative to allow physicians to prescribe (but not administer) a lethal dose of a toxic drug to assist their patients in committing suicide. Advocates of physician-assisted suicide assure us that this can be a good choice for someone who is dying, or who wants to die.

If physician-assisted suicide really represents a good choice, we need to ask: Why should only physicians be able to participate? Why should only physicians be allowed to undermine public trust in their profession through these kinds of death-dealing activities?

Why not include police? If a sick person expresses a wish to die, the police could be notified, and an officer would arrive bearing a suitable firearm. He would load it with ammunition, cock the gun and place it on the bedside stand of the sick patient. After giving instruction on the best way to angle the barrel, the officer would depart, and the patient could then pick up the device and take it from there—police-assisted suicide.

Oh good grief. Please try harder, Father. You surely can do better than that. Mercifully, Pacholczyk then changes tack. He offers up a couple of true life stories that allegedly make the case against assisted suicide:

I remember reading a letter to the editor in the local paper of a small town many years ago. A woman wrote in about the death of her grandparents—well-educated, intelligent and seemingly in control of their faculties—who had tragically committed suicide together by drinking a deadly substance. They were elderly and struggling with various ailments.

Her firsthand perspective was unflinching: It took her years to forgive her grandparents. She was angry at what they had done to her and her family. She felt betrayed and nauseated. She could hardly believe it had really happened.

The woman was still upset that they hadn’t reached out to the rest of the family for assistance. She dismissed the idea that suicide could ever be a good thing as a “total crock and a lie…”

Because, you see, it was all about her. What her grandparents wanted for their own lives counted, apparently, for nothing. She cannot have loved them very much. Not really. Not truly.

And then we have this:

A friend of mine in Canada has struggled with multiple sclerosis for many years. He often speaks out against assisted suicide.

Recently, he sent me a picture of himself taken with his smiling grandchildren, one sitting on each arm of his wheelchair. Below the picture he wrote, “If I had opted for assisted suicide back in the mid-1980s when I first developed MS, and it seemed life as I knew it was over, look what I would have missed. I had no idea that one day I would be head over heels in love with grandchildren! Never give up on life.


In the early stages of his disease (and perhaps even now) this man could have opted for suicide by his own hand. He has chosen not to, and he continues to lead an apparently rich and fulfilled life. Good for him. He made the right choice, but what is right for him is not right for everyone, and is no argument at all for depriving (in particular) the helpless of their chance for release.

By the weakness of this almost insultingly feeble article, Father Pacholczyk reveals yet again how little intellectual force there is to the argument against assisted suicide once those who make it stray from the religious ideology on which their case is, in reality, based, a religious ideology that should not be enforced on those who disagree with it.

The answer to Massachusetts’s Question Two should be yes.



  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 15, 2012 at 12:57 am

    Where to start… Where to start… It’s almost as if he is on his knees begging to have his illogic exposed – this priest. Sadly, few will read the responses here on The Secular Right.

    Once again I feel torn. I know this appeal of his may draw some Catholics to reconsider their Liberal leanings in total (read: election choices), yet this is so entirely wrong. Clearly the attitudes of the Catholic church and other religions to “end of life choice” is responsible for making it more difficult for the families of the individuals in question to accept those choices. I would be angry at the disingenuousness of this priest if I could only be certain that he does not truly believe what he says.

    Obviously the main flaw in his reasoning (though there are many), is in suggesting that a Physician who complies with the will of a patient is somehow jeopardizing the trust of other citizens. This, I suspect, is where the priest is purposefully being dishonest, believing that the end purpose justified his ludicrous means. If anything, alleviating the suffering of a patient and empowering them to end their own life with dignity, should engender more confidence in the physician. The whole “why not a cop” thing is almost too stupid to merit a response, yet many will have no problem with this argument.

    Andrew rightly points out about one distraught family member “…Because, you see, it was all about her”. The public “trust” the priest is talking about, refers to the family trusting the doctor to force their loved-one to live on in misery simply because others are unwilling, and unprepared, to give them up.

    As a dog-owner (adopter), I know how hard it will be to let my dog go and have lethal drugs administered to him when he ceases to have quality of life. It will be like losing the son I never had. I love him enough to suffer so that he doesn’t have to. This isn’t noble, it is humane. I hope this all gets sorted out before my time comes… pain in the ass to get cyanide these days;-)

  • John · October 15, 2012 at 1:36 am

    I think that Pacholczyk’s analogy of the cop is a very good one. There is no logical, philosophical reason to believe in physician assisted suicide but not other kinds of assisted suicide. Since I do favor assisted suicide, I favor all of it.

    Of course, legalizing only physician assisted suicide is politically easier than completely legalizing assisted suicide, so proponents of assisted suicide are proposing that as a palatable first step.

    It’s sort of like legalizing riverboat gambling. Obviously gambling is either moral or it isn’t so it should either be legal or not, but it is politically easier to legalize gambling only in a few locations at first than everywhere.

  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 15, 2012 at 2:40 am

    John- The problem is that the intent of the priest in proposing the cop option was to provoke an emotional, knee-jerk response, not to state the obvious near equivalence. If it were otherwise, the priest would be arguing (with you)in favor of, not against legalized suicide.

    That is why I consider his posing of this alternate scenario to be stupid, it does not rationally argue his case. He intentionally skirts the primary issue of right to choice. It is, as you (John) say, completely political.

    The Priest says “undermining the public trust”. He is being dishonest in implying that it need be either the physician who has been attending the patient, or a cop. Much more common sense (and politically palatable) would be to have a separate professional whose job is solely to provide this service, as Kevorkian attempted to do.

    All that aside, I don’t dissagree with anything you have said, I just think that from a political standpoint we can’t let guys like this trap us into looking callous, and inhuman. That is, in my opinion, his intent. It is part in parcel with the way Religions attempt to de-humanize Atheists.

  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 15, 2012 at 3:03 am

    I should have clarified: By separate professional, I mean (an)other qualified physician(s) willing to serve in this function if the regular physician(s) finds it to be in conflict with his values or understanding of the Hippocratic Oath.

    Personally I find the wording of the ballot initiative to be unfortunate.

  • Mark in Spokane · October 15, 2012 at 5:24 am

    How about these reasons for voting against Mass.’ assisted suicide proposal:

  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Mark in spokane – Just read them all; they are completely irrelevent. I would have worded the ballot initiative differently, but again, it is a about personal choice. I understand that Catholics don’t believe in personal choice when it comes to life and death decisions concerning one’s own body.

    I am not Catholic, and I do not want some Catholic, or other misguided, superstitious believer in Alien law givers telling me when I can or can’t choose to pull the plug.

    I do not want friends or family, telling me when I can or can’t pull the plug.

    I don’t expect the physician to pull it, I want “someone” to be able to put it in my hand in the event that I am trapped in a hospital with little hope of escape.

  • Secular Traditionalist · October 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Whether or not we have faith, we need to be guided by what is sensible. This includes logic, and thinking of the human experience itself.

    If you think about it, any god who means well will also be sensible. If assisted suicide is sensible, that god will support it.

    It’s not inconceivable that the much-vaunted gap between religion and reason is just an illusion.

  • Acilius · October 15, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I think we ought to distinguish between two separate questions as we discuss the idea of a right to assisted suicide. First, how ought we to respond when a person goes about asking “Please kill me now.” Second, how ought we respond when a person leaves a document specifying some very extreme situation that s/he has never been in, and declaring that if s/he ever is in that situation, it would be his or her wish to be killed.

    People in general have unique access to knowledge about their own present desires. Barring mental illness or other special circumstances that may compromise that knowledge, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that people are the best judges of what they themselves want to do. So, in the first situation, unless the person making the request is subject to one of those special circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that the person does in fact want to be killed. Whether it is right for any particular person to accede to this desire is of course another matter, but at least we can be confident that the desire actually exists.

    What about a document in which a person specifies a hypothetical situation to which s/he is now a stranger and asks to be killed if that situation arises? What does the existence of that document tell us about the person’s desires should the situation in fact arise? I would say that it tells us little or nothing. In this connection, the story of Father Pacholczyk’s Canadian friend is quite germane. Had you asked him when he was well what he would have wanted were he someday to come to his present situation, this friend might well have said that he would want to be put out of his misery. Yet now that the situation has in fact arisen, he finds that he does not want that at all, that he wants to go on living as long as he can.

    This should not be surprising. While we may know more than anyone else about the desires we are experiencing while we are experiencing them, we have no privileged access to desires we might experience were we placed in situations radically different from any we have experienced. So the pre-injury or pre-disease self has no more right to speak for the locked-in self than does any other acquaintance.

    If we want guidance as to what patients who cannot communicate might want, we would likely be better off forgetting about “living wills” and the myth of the continuous self that underpins them and taking an empirical approach. We can find out how many people who develop severe disabilities show a clear and persistent desire for death; we can interview patients who have recovered the ability to communicate and explore what wishes they had while they could not. Statistical analysis of these studies will certainly not provide an infallible guide to the question of what any given patient would want, but it will at least have some degree of relevance. That is more than we can say for the contents of a “living will.”

  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 16, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Acilius – I completely disagree… and that I disagree is a large part of the point I make. If this is the way you feel on the issue, then you should be free not to set up a living will spelling out conditions under which you are offered the decision to end your own life.

    You are merely offering yet another philosophical rationalization as to why I should not be given the right to make a life-death decision concerning my own body. It also makes me curious where you fall on the issue of “choice” where it concerns a women deciding whether or not to “terminate” a pregnancy. If a woman has the right to terminate an unborn fetus “it is not yet a fully realized human”, then why do I not have the right to terminate my own life “I feel I am ‘no longer’ a fully realized human”.

    What you are doing is helping the priest put forward his agenda of denying me a legal pathway to make my own decision, should I become permenantly incarcerated in a hospital.

    I respectfully submit that it is complete fallacy to equate the desire to prepare for such a situation in advance, with questioning my desire to live at this current moment. If I purchase “life insurance” now, or put together a living will in other matters, it’s not because I no longer want to live.

    Please do not presume that because YOU believe you may feel differently when you are actually in such a situation that “I” will. I love life, and to me being permenantly bed-ridden would not be a life. If I feel differently when I become permenantly hospitalized or bed-ridden, I may choose not to pull the plug.

    Again, this initiative does not guarantee my final decision, it simply offers it to me. Go through whatever gymnastics a “right to death” protocol requires… but in the end, if I request it, I want the ability to have the plug in my hand and make the ultimate life decision.

  • Easter Island Sally · October 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    The prohibition of assisted suicide seems to create a perverse incentive and a cruel choice. Should I kill myself while I’m still able to do so on my own, even if my life isn’t presently unendurable and even moderately pleasant? Or should I continue living, at the risk that a major stroke or other sudden and unpredictable event will render me unable to act on my own, and stuck with the default assumption of spending tedious months and years propped up in front of a nursing-home TV blaring “Dr. Phil”?

    We don’t know the full story of the grandparents in Père Pacholczyk’s first anecdote, but might they have considered this dilemma and opted for the first choice?

    Furthermore, had they been able to moot the suicide option without the threat of forcible psychotherapy, it seems not unlikely that they’d have called in family members for discussion and for last farewells. I suspect that many people who feel burdened by their deteriorating bodies would like to take some kind of formal leave of their families and friends. Under the current regime, however, that’s too risky– all it takes is one well-meaning grandchild dropping a dime to the mental-health police, and one’s freedom of action is gone.

    No. I want to be able to leave a medical power of attorney with a trusted friend with whom I’ve discussed end-of-life issues; and I want that POA to include the power to authorize giving me The Shot. I want to be able to discuss the suicide option with my loved ones, and to hold a proper valediction rather than having to sneak off to the exit.



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