Expansions on euthanasia should be sounding alarm bells for us all

‘In our utilitarian and utopian zeal, the right to die today may become the duty to die tomorrow,’ warns Toronto physician Mark D’Souza.

Holding hands in a hospital bed. Photo by Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

(RNS) — It’s bizarre, really: Society seeks to prevent suicides at the same time as it seeks to enable them.

People are encouraged by public service announcements to intervene when someone seems suicidal, and news and feature stories referencing suicide often contain an addendum offering the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

And, as of this month, anyone contemplating suicide can access a counselor by just dialing a newly instituted code, 988, which will rout the caller to the NSPL.

Yet, at the same time, the legal right to physician-assisted suicide is being expanded more than ever.

So which is it? Do we as a society want to prevent people from killing themselves, or to support it as an expression of personal autonomy?

Recent months have seen billions of electrons summoned to screens addressing choices attendant to the beginning of life, in the womb. But, in the background, churning along quietly, were developments about choices attendant to the ending of life.

Ten states and the District of Columbia currently permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill people.

Several countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland, also allow anyone, terminally ill or not, to receive or self-administer lethal injections, as long as they feel their physical or psychological pain is no longer bearable.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, legislators are debating whether to extend the right to euthanasia beyond those with medical conditions to those who simply feel they have lived long enough.

And Canada, which has permitted physician-assisted suicide since 2016 — a permission of which more than 21,000 people have availed themselves — has now expanded that imprimatur along the lines of the current law in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

This past March, after a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling that challenged the constitutionality of restricting the federal right of euthanasia to those whose death is reasonably foreseeable, euthanasia became legal even in the absence of terminal illness. For now, the law excludes claims of unbearable psychiatric, not physical, suffering, but that exclusion is to expire in two years. 

Dr. Mark D’Souza, who retired from medicine in 2017 when his government refused to protect the right of physicians to decline to help patients end their own lives, argues: “There needs to be more debate and less shaming and censorship of those who disagree with the current orthodoxy on euthanasia.

“Otherwise,” he warns, “in our utilitarian and utopian zeal, the right to die today may become the duty to die tomorrow.”

Such a “duty” needn’t come from the law, or even from pressure to “die peacefully” from impatient heirs. Insurance companies may prove enough.

In 2015, a California wife and mother of four named Stephanie Packer, who had been diagnosed with a terminal form of scleroderma, was told by her insurance company that chemotherapy drugs prescribed by her doctors were denied under her health coverage.

The following year, after California enacted its End of Life Option Act, which authorized doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of poison to patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live, her insurance company informed her that another option, physician-assisted suicide, would be available for $1.20.

She decided against that, but it’s all too easy to imagine others, perhaps some even encouraged by those who love them, seeing the deal as a good one.

Making physician-assisted suicide an easy option puts us on a dangerous path, at the end of which may lie overzealous doctors and “mercy killers.”

Dr. Jack Kevorkian may no longer be active; he left us in 2011. But he helped some 130 people predecease him. And nurse’s aide Donald Harvey, to take just one of a good number of such cases, claimed to have poisoned or suffocated 87 hospitalized but not terminal patients.

Even leaving fears of misguided do-gooders, profit-driven insurers and impatient heirs aside, though, the question of suicide and aiding it remains an essentially ethical one, about the worth of life.

The Orthodox Jewish religious tradition, of which I am a product and adherent, unequivocally rejects the idea that either abortion or suicide is a “choice” to be made. Judaism considers life to be not about rights but about right — that is to say, about responsibilities. And it maintains life is so valuable that we have no permission to end it at will.

Time in this world, even a tiny slice of it, can be used to accomplish much. Another smile can be shared, another kind word spoken; an apology can be offered, or a regret confronted; repentance can be achieved or peace made with an alienated friend or relative.

Instead of offering those facing death — as, ultimately, we all are — the means to end their lives early, should we not, instead, better focus on convincing them of what they can still accomplish even in mere moments more on earth, whatever their medical, mental or physical states?

The Church of Autonomy says no.

Judaism says yes.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. He blogs at rabbishafran.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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