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You want me to do what?


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On Election Day in November, in addition to electing a president, we the people of Massachusetts, or at least those of us who take the trouble to vote, will be deciding whether to legalize prescribing "medication" to end someone's life. Question 2 is a ballot question, and I for one plan to vote NO. For one thing, I don't like medications that are actually lethal. Without euphemism, we used to call them simply "poison."

I think human life is inherently valuable, inviolable and unalienable. Even or especially when it becomes difficult or painful, as happens with illness and/or old age. I do not think it is the business of government or of individuals to be making the judgment that someone else's life is not worth living, and consequently enabling third parties to help kill them. Suicide is something I regard with horror, partly because a strain of mental illness runs in my family, so suicidal urges and thoughts are not something foreign to my experience. But I associate them with depression and mental illness.

While suicide is not technically illegal, assisted suicide has always been illegal because it helps kill someone. Consent, it should be noted, has never been a defense to the charge of homicide. (In this, it is unlike some other crimes like rape.) The proposed law does not generally require a psychological evaluation of the people requesting the lethal drugs to assure that they are in their right mind. So much for the proposed "safeguards"!

Our religious tradition has always viewed suicide as encompassed within the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." But you don't have to be against assisted suicide for religious reasons, anymore than abolitionists could only have religious reasons to be against slavery. Their view was that human freedom was unalienable, and therefore a person could never totally surrender their freedom through human slavery. The same is true with life, another of our unalienable rights, in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, suicide is a choice unlike other choices in that it closes off options, rather than opening them up. Human life and liberty are goods that are also mysteries, not problems to be solved. Obviously, you can eliminate pain and suffering by eliminating the sufferer. But that is targeting the victim rather than the disease.

It seems infinitely preferable to treat the pain and suffering caused by terminal illnesses with compassion and palliative care. The easy solution of the poison pill, however attractive to insurance companies and healthcare institutions looking to cut costs and free up beds, merely undercuts the need of providing comfort care and adequate pain relief. In the words of the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, "Massachusetts should improve access to quality health care for terminally ill patients, not access to suicide."

The current law allows adequate pain relief for ill individuals, even if an unintended side effect is to depress respiration and heartbeat and thus inadvertently hasten death. But what it doesn't permit, and rightly so, is to deliberately intend to bring about a patient's death in order to eliminate pain and suffering.

I'm against the death penalty in general, even for those found guilty of serious crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, so why should I be in favor of it being facilitated by private doctors on innocent, if suffering, individuals, even if they request it in a distraught state? Indeed, the refusal to do so was part of the original Hippocratic Oath that expressed the ethical duties of physicians to heal and care rather than poison and kill.

What about the poor, the elderly, and the psychologically frail? Won't they be subject to pressure to choose death rather than continued treatment? Once this becomes legal, of course, psychological pressure can be disguised as a way to get people to exercise their legal choice in the matter. Judge the matter for yourself.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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