As we wrap up Respect Life Month, I would like to offer some commentary on another life-threatening issue that is growing in popularity in our country: Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS). This is similar to, but not the same as, euthanasia. In euthanasia the doctor administers the drug which ends life; in PAS the doctor supplies the drug for the individual to self-administer. Both are gravely immoral.
Currently five states and Washington DC have legal PAS and another state allows it by court ruling. The state of Kansas introduced the Death with Dignity Act earlier this year which awaits review by Kansas’ Committee on Health and Human Services. The popularity of PAS has grown as the conversation about it focusses on PAS as “death with dignity” or a “compassionate choice” to end suffering.
The argument for PAS is that many are suffering from terrible pain and it is compassionate to let them be free from it. This argument succeeds in that it sparks fear in us that people are suffering from severe, incurable pain. However, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act: 2015 Data Summary shows the real reasons cited by those seeking PAS: 96% cited being “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable,” 92% cited “losing autonomy,” and 48% cited being a “burden on family/caregivers.” Only 29% showed concern for “inadequate pain control or concern about it.” So which is the compassionate choice, accompany the suffering with love and palliative care or provide them with drugs so they no longer have to be a burden to us?
Why is PAS not death with dignity? First, when have we ever considered suicide a dignified choice? When have we lauded those who say to persons suffering with a terminal illness “It’d be better without you”? Are those who don’t choose PAS undignified? PAS is not death with dignity because there is no dignity in devaluing human life. Life doesn’t lose its dignity when it entails suffering. The value of life is more than the sum of its pleasures and “activities making life enjoyable.” One’s life is dignified because God desires, out of His abundant love, for it to be.
For us to affirm that the value of someone’s life has run out because she is suffering with a terminal illness is to confirm for her that life is no longer dignified. That is not compassion. Com-passion means “to suffer with.” PAS is not compassion. Accompanying the suffering, lonely, and vulnerable person with love, respect, and a good dose of our time is compassion. A death with dignity is one where the value of the person is affirmed with love all the way to the end.
Fr. Adam Grelinger