5 states open Pandora’s Box of doctor-assisted suicide

WASHINGTON – It was inevitable that we would one day seek ways to kill ourselves with society’s blessing.

California recently joined four other states – Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana – that allow terminally ill patients to commit suicide using doctor-prescribed drugs. Criteria under the California law include that the patient has a terminal disease, would likely die within six months, and is of sound mind and can self-administer the “medicine.”

Thanks to medical advances that can extend life beyond what some find acceptable, resulting in unnecessary suffering, many think it’s their right to die with dignity using medications legally prescribed.

It’s an easy enough argument to understand. There’s a certain logic and humanity to the option of leaving life gracefully by one’s own volition, as long as it really is.

Here, I should confess my own ambivalence. Basically, I’d like to have the means to end my own life on my own terms when my body has clearly called it quits. I’m just not sure I like the idea of the state and doctors lending a hand.

At least two problems seem obvious: Death dates can’t be predicted with precision and are, therefore, speculative. How often have you heard that someone has three months to live and he or she is still around two years later? And “medicine” by definition means: (1) a substance to ease pain or other symptoms, and (2) a science to prevent, treat or cure diseases.

One could argue that suicide medicine would relieve the pain of living through the final stages of cancer, as an example. But this clearly isn’t what Merriam-Webster – or the Hippocratic oath – intended. The purpose of medicine is to prevent illness and to heal, not to end life when healing isn’t possible.

Still, what are we to do when medicine can do no more? Or when treatment means prolonging suffering toward inevitable death? We are kinder to our pets, many would argue.

Perhaps I read too many dystopian science-fiction novels during my formative years, but there’s something disturbing about asking doctors to help their patients die. Then again, we’ve already asked them to destroy unborn human life, codifying the legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

When the continuum of life – from conception to natural death – is interrupted as a convenience to one’s individual concept of time (I’m not ready to be a parent; I’m ready to die), what else do we also terminate? Gradually inured to the metaphysical considerations of such actions, might we also be denying ourselves access to charity, compassion, empathy and love?

Unknowable in our calculations is what happens in the final moments of life. If Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, wasted away with terminal cancer, had decided to leave the party early, we might not have learned from his sister, Mona Simpson, that his final words were, after staring for a long time at each of his family members: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I don’t know what Jobs saw, but I think I’d like to see it, too.

Troubling, too, is the possibility that some patients might feel obligated to commit suicide once the option is available, even though prescribing doctors are encouraged to tell patients they don’t have to take the medicine. Many reportedly don’t take the pills.

But a sick person might want to protect family members and think, oh, well, what’s another six months? A lifetime, I should think. Can’t life be made tolerable enough during this time to avoid making doctors and family members complicit in suicide?

Other questions seize the mind: Will the right to die ultimately be considered as just another facet of “health care,” as abortion has come to be? And when do six months become a year? A novelist would propose that it’s just a matter of time before a glut of elderly people in poor health, who are by definition “terminal,” so overwhelm the health care system that “opting out” becomes an expectation rather than a choice. This would be satire, right? And satire does not a slippery slope make, but laws do condition values. Oregon, which passed its right-to-die law in 1997, has the highest suicide rate in the country – 35 percent higher than the national average, according to an Oregon Public Health report.

As more than a dozen other states consider similar legislation, it isn’t irrational to wonder whether, in tampering with our medical culture of healing, we aren’t inviting unintended consequences that we’ll live – or die – to regret.

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