Bishop Tutu’s Plea Prompts Personal Meditation on Assisted Suicide
At age 30, I decided to spend my life working to improve end-of-life care and that the way that I would do that would be by “doing ethics.” I would spend my life arguing that the seriously ill and dying have an inherent right to a “dignified death.” This year I will be 70, and I have had a long and interesting career. Over the past 40 years, the issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been what I considered as recurring distractions from what I have thought to be really important, i.e., advancing palliative care. Bishop Tutu’s comments, however, cannot and should not be considered by any one as simply a “distraction.” I believe they are a “game-changer.”I worked late Tuesday night and was listening to NPR as I always do during my short commute home when I heard that, in celebration of his 85th birthday, Bishop Desmond Tutu announced that he supports physician-assisted suicide and “prays that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices that terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth with dignity and love.” I was stunned.
In the late 1990s, I directed Community-State Partnerships to Improve End-of-Life Care, an $11.25m Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation grant award program. At about the same time, Jack Kevorkian – or Dr. Death as he came to be known – came on to the public scene. At a national conference, I was asked what I thought of Dr. Kevorkian, and I said without hesitating that I thought he was a murderer and should be imprisoned.
Envisioning Other Options
After the conference, a communication officer from the RWJ Foundation asked me if I knew the data regarding public views on physician-assisted suicide. I said that, of course, I did – 50% of Americans were for it and 50% were against it. She said, “You realize that when you made the statement you did that half the audience turned you off,” and then asked me if I could imagine saying something like, “Physician-assisted suicide is something good people disagree about, but what we can all agree upon is that we must do a better job of caring for those who are seriously ill and dying so that they don’t see suicide as their only option.”
That statement made good sense to me and has served me well over the years. To clarify my personal view, I always add that I am against the “legalization” of assisted suicide but would NEVER pass moral judgment on a caring committed physician or loving family member who assisted a patient or loved one to die. Furthermore, I know that it happens all over the United States every day. Years ago, an article titled “It’s Over Debbie” was published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Society) in which a resident anonymously reported having euthanized a young woman in agonal pain dying of a terminal gynecological cancer. I got four calls, two of them from healthcare professionals in Kansas City, telling me that the caller was sure the event had occurred in their own hospital.
Personal Choice and the Slippery Slope
I have shared in private conversations, however, that in certain situations, I would personally choose to end my own life and expect others to help me to do so if I were incapable of acting on my own behalf. I recognize the logical inconsistency of my thoughts and have felt hypocritical from time to time. But because so many people in the U.S. are not insured and do not have access to healthcare, especially good end-of-life care, and because we know without question that certain populations, e.g., people of color and those in lower socio-economic situations, receive less care, worse care and have poorer outcomes, I have felt that legalizing physician-assisted suicide could potentially make these people even more vulnerable…that it was just too risky. Even though the data from Oregon, the first state in the U.S. to legalize physician-assisted suicide, has not proven that to be true, my fear has been the “slippery slope,” i.e., if we allow competent people to make this choice, are we then far from deciding the same should be true for those who cannot make decisions for themselves. I still do not believe that concern is unfounded.
The Netherlands, the first country to legalize euthanasia, now allows others to make decisions about ending the lives of those who are unable to be self-determining. Furthermore, years ago, I debated this issue with Derek Humphry, Founder of the Hemlock Society, and when I asked him if he would support euthanizing people who had never been able to express their wishes, he said something like “not now.”
No Safe Harbor
After hand-printing a few letters to children saying that I was not sure why they thought I would ever want to harm their grandmother, we learned the source of the perception. I honestly will never know why I became the target of this series. I do know, however, that it was heart-breaking to me that for nearly two years, if you Googled “euthanasia,” my name was the first thing to pop-up. Ironically, in the early 2000s, two nurses in upstate New York who published an online newspaper called The North Country Gazette, decided that I was the leader of the euthanasia movement in the U.S. For several months, they published a “front-page” article about euthanasia and included my name in the headline. I wasn’t aware of it until I began to receive letters from children asking me why I wanted to kill their grandmother and got a couple of calls from national organizations with whom the Center was working asking me to clarify our position on euthanasia. (I should point out that the Center does not now nor has it ever had an official position on euthanasia. Members of the Center’s board and staff are not of one mind about this issue, and I suspect never will be.)
Neither my ambivalence (or lack of intellectual clarity) nor my efforts to claim the moral high ground – or even what I thought to be clever communication strategies – had provided me a safe harbor or a pass from this debate.
A Moral Right
Now on Tuesday night, Bishop Desmond Tutu, a person who for years I have considered a global moral leader and personal hero, spoke with conviction and confidence about euthanasia as a moral right, an entitlement.
Ethics is not about black and white. In my experience, it is clearly about trying to deal with “shades of gray.” But, from a philosophical perspective, respect for human life is not negotiable and that has been a sticking point for me. Tuesday night Bishop Tutu said, “As a Christian, I believe in the sanctity of life and that death is a part of life. I hope that when the time comes I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.” I do too.
Learn more at https://practicalbioethics.org
Written by Myra Christopher