California takes a step closer to death
April 13, 2005
After a long and impassioned debate, the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday 5-3 to approve physician-assisted suicide in California. Expect this issue to remain contentious all year as AB 654 moves forward in the legislative process.
California law currently allows individuals to refuse life support, feeding tubes, or other treatments that would keep them alive through “extraordinary measures.” So the issue at the heart of AB 654 is whether California’s healers should also take on the role of bringing life to an end.
Such a radical change in our state’s view of suicide comes with certain practical dilemmas. Several merit serious consideration.
People may commit suicide on bad information. Every year people are told they have incurable, fatal diseases – only to find out later the prognosis was wrong. It is not hard to imagine doctors discovering in post-suicide autopsies that some patients were not terminal after all.
The “medical” suicide procedure itself is not as tidy as some imagine. As we’ve seen in Oregon, complications occur in an estimated 20 percent of assisted suicides ranging from extensive vomiting to a labored dying process of 30 hours or more.
Many doctors believe, as the American Medical Association has clearly expressed, “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer.” So suicide providers will often be strangers, with no awareness of a patient’s history or needs. One Oregon suicide provider acknowledged recently that 75 percent of his “suicide patients” are people he’s never treated before.
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These are legitimate, tangible issues. But the primary question is much larger.
Do we as a people really desire to place a stamp of legal and social approval on the act of suicide?
Consider two potent images. First, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying in Calcutta, India. Sisters in simple blue and white habits, and volunteers from around the world, quietly tend to broken bodies and gaunt faces. The patients are all terminal. They have been lifted from gutters and trash heaps, and carried to the cots that fill the cool, concrete rooms. The Sisters desire to show each one that even in their final hours, every life is of infinite worth.
Then let the picture fade to 10,000 robust men and women, their feet marching in powerful unison without weakness or infirmity. This is the most efficient government ever established, Nazi Germany, the one that introduced physician assisted suicide to the world. Their nation marches forward, unhindered by the disabled, mentally ill, or slow-to-die.
Do these contrasting images really reflect what this debate is all about? In many ways, no. Most supporters of AB 654 are well meaning people who view assisted suicide as a compassionate relief from difficult and painful situations.
But we can see in these portraits a pure, unvarnished sense how good and right it is when life stands unmistakably as the highest value…and also what it feels like when life becomes merely a relative value.
To make human life a “relative value” – one that can sometimes come second to efficiency, cost-savings, an escape from depression or avoidance of pain – is a dangerous road to begin walking. It is not unreasonable to ask where it will lead.
Assisted Suicide proponent Derek Humphry provides a hint in his book, Final Exit. He writes, “What can those of us who sympathize with a justified suicide by a handicapped person do to help? When we have statutes on the books permitting lawful physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill, I believe that along with this reform there will come a more tolerant attitude to the other exceptional cases.”
This has certainly been the case in the Netherlands. Initially, euthanasia was reserved only for the dying. But over two decades it has been expanded to include the hopelessly ill and emotionally disturbed, evolving into a “way out” for many. Even more disturbing is a 1995 report finding that nearly 20 percent of euthanasia cases in the Netherlands involved ending life without the patient’s consent. It is fair to wonder what 20 more years will bring.
We must all acknowledge the painful nuances and complexity in any end-of-life issue. There are no easy answers. But if we do error, should it not be on the side of life? Regardless of the complexity and questions that will remain, we will not go wrong by consistently affirming the immeasurable value of every human life.
-Tim Leslie is Dean of the California Legislature, and represents California’s 4th Assembly District.
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