CL Response: Assisted Suicide

 

1996

 

The symbolic but significant decision of the Congress to ban federal monies for assisted suicide should be applauded as a clear act of public leadership. Our country watches with growing concern as state legislatures around the country test legislation to deal with the issue.

A number of key cases, especially one in the U.S. Supreme Court, will test the issue further in the coming months and years. However they rule, efforts will continue to permit assisted suicide among the elderly and terminally ill. 

 

Once again, an abstract analysis of rights clouds the issue. Rights exist in a network of solidarity and mutual concern. They protect not only the individual but the social fabric that articulates them. They exemplify some of our finest and noblest leanings as a species. The body of human rights law that has developed since World War II and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 augurs a future of respect for human dignity. But these covenants and standards in their entirety protect communities, societies, cultures, religions, nations, and minorities as well as individuals.

 

To argue in some abstract way about the abstract right of an isolated terminally ill patient to take his or her life is absurd and empty. A caring community and society is in solidarity and compassion with the terminally ill person and learns what it means to be truly human and noble in the way that it deals with its sickest members. So we "ask not for whom the bell tolls" when we confront terminal illness in our communities because we know that we all suffer with the ill. When we truly love them, a piece of us dies with them. To analyze the rights of a terminally ill person without concern for the rest of us in the analysis and without regard for the treasured place of the sick person among us defies the nature of our life together as human beings in a common web of life and community.

 

In the worst case scenario, it is of the gravest concern that the terminally ill might exercise an abstract, isolated, disconnected right to take their own lives because of how we relate to them as a community -- in the face of our too-frequent abandonment of them, in the face of our constant projection of their questionable usefulness because of our society's emphasis on utility, in the face of our nationally disgraceful way of dealing with health care costs and health insurance, frequently driving families into bankruptcy in the face of major illness. What an irony it would be to insist on the abstract, isolated right of a terminally ill person to take his or her own life because it better fits obtuse social dysfunction and breaches of community among us.

 

All serious medical practitioners insist that the terminally ill do not need to suffer. We should take all measures necessary to palliate their pain and discomfort. We need to assure that the terminally ill are not demeaned by aggressive medical care by professionals and hospitals who insist on extraordinary means of intervention when they are not useful. We need to reform medical coverage so that a major illness does not financially crush loved ones and families, leaving the dying with the guilty knowledge that they may be bankrupting their loved ones. Failing to take these steps and insisting on some abstract right of suicide is to choose violence instead of love and compassion.

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