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Give Me Your Tired and Poor, But Not Your Sick and Elderly

Since 2009, Washington’s Death with Dignity law has allowed terminally ill individuals to commit medically assisted suicide by obtaining a prescription for a lethal overdose from their doctors. Now, according to Wesley J. Smith’s recent post on his Human Exceptionalism blog, the policy at one healthcare facility permits doctors to broach the option of assisted suicide on their own initiative. As Smith puts it, suicide can be the doctor’s idea. After reading Smith’s post, I recalled incidents where elderly relatives protested allowing family to cart them to doctor’s appointments or take them to a restaurant for a family dinner. They don’t “want to be a burden” or “cause a scene,” in the event they should become sick or slip and fall in public. It shouldn’t be any wonder that America’s elderly and ill express such anxieties. Our culture is obsessed with youthfulness and airbrushed perfection. We want to preserve our independence—preferably the kind where we rely on entitlements instead of our undependable, fractured families. We want to minimize physical and psychological discomforts at all costs. We shrink from uncomfortable truths, believing that the majority of our social problems are systemic ones that can be fixed with the right public policies, money and science. In place of the American dream where all are free to live as they choose (within limits, of course), we harbor a delusion about a country where it is always summertime, and the living is easy for each and every American. The drive to wrap our lives up in one neat, unblemished package—an existence unburdened by pain, financial woes, or the need to rely on others, or even on God—not only explains the “death with dignity” movement, but it also makes it dangerous. In the first place, the legal right to choose to hasten one’s own death is very different than the right to die with dignity. Dignity implies a state of being worthy of honor and respect. Are humans not worthy of respect even as their bodies fail them? Do we have to be perfect at our last breath, perfect in choosing the right moment for our exit, in order to die with dignity now? Dignity of the person comes from being created in God’s image, and we are no less a reflection of the Creator when we are old or frail than when we are young or healthy. The advent of “death with dignity programs” that allow doctors to subtly suggest otherwise—that it might be better and more dignified to choose our own, earlier ending before life gets too difficult, too unpleasant for us and for our loved ones—is cause for deep concern. In the future, the pressing moral battle regarding assisted suicide may not be over whether someone has the right to choose to die more quickly, but whether someone has the right to choose to live out a life that isn’t “pretty” or easy, but nevertheless has profound dignity. The policy change allowing doctors to suggest the option of assisted suicide may indicate that a shift in framing the moral debate is already in progress in America—and we should do what we can to stop it.