Assisted Suicide, Human Nature and Yelling at Guys on the Radio

Yesterday, I yelled at a dying man.

Fortunately, he didn’t hear me, as he was clear across town, and I was listening to him on the radio. I am also not entirely sure that he is dying, but he has been diagnosed with brain cancer.  And he is a spokesman for the “Yes on Prop 106” campaign, which would legalize assisted suicide here in Colorado.

God bless the man — I am praying for him in his illness. He seemed sincere in many ways. Certainly very well-spoken. 

But he’s sure carrying some unfortunate ideas.

Right off the bat, I was annoyed when he took several gratuitous swipes at the Catholic Church, which he accused of misrepresentation and outright lies in the campaign against Prop 106. Never gave any specifics, of course. Just left the innuendo hanging out there. 

Then he went into what struck me as some rather Orwellian doublespeak. First, instead of using the term “physician assisted suicide”, he said that Prop 106 would legalize “aid in dying.”

I don’t know about you, but to me “aid in dying” brings to mind helping someone while they are dying — providing physical and spiritual support, comforting them, attempting to relieve their suffering.  Basically loving them through it.  But physician assisted suicide doesn’t offer aid to people while they’re dying. It offers suicide. It kills them. It gets them out of the way.

He then said that Prop 106 would help the dying ”speed up the dying process.” To me, that implies that they would die sooner of whatever it is they are dying of. But that’s not what is happening here at all. This process involves administering poison to the patient and killing them. They don’t die of the disease. They die of something else entirely — the poison that the doctor (who has sworn to “first do no harm”) has administered to them.

Then came the kicker. He said that this is really about expanding choices, and that if people don’t believe that assisted suicide is a good choice for them, they don’t have to do it.

That’s when I started yelling. Something to the effect of “do you know nothing about human nature?”

Nobody believes, if Prop 106 passes, that sometime next month doctors will start prying poison pills down the throats of unwilling patients.

The danger is much more subtle.

Grandma is sick. Has a terminal diagnosis. This disease has been a drag for the family. Grandma’s medical bills are sucking up funds that the kids were planning to use for a nice cruise after she kicks the bucket. Grandma fears becoming a “burden.” Subtle guilt trips ensue. Grandma doesn’t want to swallow poison and end her life. She wants to spend her last months praying and saying goodbye to her family. But she’s feeling pressured to get gone already.

Or Uncle Joe is very depressed. He just met with his doctor, who thinks he’s got about six more months. He doesn’t even tell his family, who want to surround him with love and support. His depression could be treated, and he could spend his remaining days with his family. But, in his altered mental state, he opts instead to commit medically-sanctioned suicide — with the help of a doctor who has sworn to ‘first do no harm.”

Prop 106 doesn’t even require a psychological evaluation.

Worse yet, how many will be deprived of the opportunity to fight for their lives? We are hearing story after story, from states where physician assisted suicide is legal, of people with advanced cancer diagnoses. Their doctors are ordering treatment, but their insurance companies are denying coverage, instead offering to cover the minimal cost of the poison pills.

My cousin died this year. He left behind a family he loved, including an 11 year old daughter. He fought to the very end. He was the only person I ever knew who worked out immediately after his chemotherapy treatments, to try to insure that the drugs worked as far into his system — and the tumors — as possible. That fight, I am sure, gave him additional precious months with his family. He took his daughter to Paris, fulfilling early a promise he made to take her there when she turned 16. She will spend the rest of her life without her father, but at least she has that memory. Without treatment, that may never have happened.

I don’t know what would have happened if Pat’s diagnosis had happened in a state where “aid in dying” was legal. Obamacare has damaged health insurers. They are looking to save money. Of course they are going to welcome the cost savings of denying treatment when the “alternative” is so much cheaper.

“But,” many say. “They are going to die soon anyway. Why throw all that money down the drain?”

But are they?

Prop 106 requires a diagnosis of less than six months to live. But doctors are doctors, not prophets. Those “diagnoses” are just estimates. They are often wildly inaccurate — not because of any fault on the doctors’ part, but because nobody can predict the future, and how God may intervene. I’m reading a biography of Johnny Cash, who was given four months to live — five years before his death. He lived five good and beautiful years with his family after being told his death was immanent.

We have a good family friend — my brother’s godmother — who had cancer and was given six months to live, back in 1989. Guess what? She is still with us today, 27 years later. The tumor doesn’t grow, doesn’t shrink. It just sits there, and she lives on.

How many people will end their lives over the mistaken notion that their lives are ending, and deprive themselves of years of joy with their families?

And finally, who believes that the six month requirement — or the requirement that the patient be an adult — will stand? At some point, there will be a legal challenge citing “discrimination against the non-dying” or “children’s rights” or something like that, and that part of the law will be struck down. Already, in Belgium, the restrictions against euthanizing children have been lifted, and just last month the first child was killed under the new law. A similar push is underway in The Netherlands. Likewise for the non-terminal depressed, who can legally be euthanized in both countries.

Do you really think that isn’t going to happen here?

I was happy to hear my friend on the radio acknowledge that, for most terminal illnesses, we are able to provide remarkably effective pain relief. We can, thank God, and we do. And we need to always strive to improve pain management for the terminally ill. But what will happen to research priority, once it becomes so much cheaper to end life instead of relieve pain while awaiting the end of life?

Nobody is saying that patients need to take every measure to fight their illnesses.  Or that efforts to relieve pain need to be moderated to extend life. We recognize — and indeed have always recognized, that many people opt to accept a terminal diagnosis and focus on comfort, not cure, in their last months. And that efforts to relieve pain, while not directly killing the patient, may shorten the time from diagnosis to death.

But all of that is very different from directly, deliberately killing the patient.

Even the Denver Post opposes Prop 106, saying it lacks appropriate safeguards.

I have always believed that life is sacred, and that God loves us and knows what is best for us, and that in His love he appoints the time of our birth and our death. But you don’t have to believe any of that that to see that assisted suicide is dangerous to the most vulnerable in our society — the sick, the suffering, the dying and the depressed. 

Once we breach the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm” — once we condone the direct killing of patients — we open a Pandora’s box.

I don’t think any of us want to see where that will end.

Please pray for the nice man on the radio in his battle with brain cancer. 

 And please vote “no” on Prop 106.