In 2012, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, campaigned against physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts. She pointed out that most people wish for a good death "surrounded by loved ones, perhaps with a doctor and/or clergyman at our bedside." But with physician-assisted suicide, you get "a prescription for up to 100 capsules, dispensed by a pharmacist, taken without medical supervision, followed by death, perhaps alone. That seems harsh and extreme to me." Indeed it is.
Yet today, at least 18 states are considering allowing physician-assisted suicide. The media frame the debate as one about individual autonomy, especially in the face of devastating illnesses that rightly capture our empathy.
But the merciful thing would be to expect doctors to do no harm and ease the pain of those who suffer and to support families and ministries in providing that care.
Allowing physicians to help patients kill themselves changes the practice of medicine and our entire culture. Our laws impact society as a whole - not just a small handful of afflicted individuals. The question is: Will our law and public policy shape our culture to view the elderly and the disabled as burdens to be disposed of, or as people to be loved and cared for?
Human life doesn't need to be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed. Doctors may help their patients to die a dignified death from natural causes, but they should not kill their patients or help them to kill themselves.
Instead of embracing physician-assisted suicide, we should respond to suffering with true compassion and solidarity. People seeking physician-assisted suicide typically suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, as well as simply from loneliness. We must respond with appropriate care and human presence.
For those in physical pain, pain management and other palliative medicine can manage their symptoms effectively. For those facing imminent death, hospice care and fellowship can accompany them in their last days. Anything less falls short of what human dignity requires.
Doctors should help their patients to die a dignified death of natural causes, not assist in killing. Physicians are always to care, never to kill. Citizens and policymakers need to resist the push by pressure groups, academic elites, and the media to sanction physician-assisted suicide.