The ‘Moral Right’ to End Your Life
Ali Tate Cutler said she didn’t expect to make headlines when she posted a video about her grandmother’s decision to end her life.
In the video, she asked “Bubbie” questions about her choice to be euthanized. “Would you prefer it to be at home? ... Are you nervous? ... Are you excited?” Her grandmother explained the euthanasia process and the reasoning behind her choice to die. Tate Cutler wrote in the Instagram caption, “TBH, I was very resistant to euthanasia before she told me her decision. It felt unethical to me. But I have had my mind changed after hearing her reasons, and I’m so happy that she has the option available in Canada.” Other users showed their appreciation for the Instagram influencer’s post, with one commenting, “[I]t’s so beautiful she gets to pass in a dignified way[.] I wish my mum had the same chance[.]”
But is euthanasia beautiful? Is assisted suicide dignified? Is suffering a justifiable reason to end one’s life?
According to 62% of Americans, the answer is yes.
In 2013, Pew Research Center conducted a survey on views of end-of-life medical treatment. They discovered that 56% of adults believe a person has a moral right to end his or her life if suffering from an incurable disease, and six-in-ten adults (62%) believe a person has a moral right to end their own life if they are suffering great pain and have no hope of improvement. It is not surprising then that euthanasia and assisted suicide enjoy high support rates among Americans.
While euthanasia is currently illegal in America, some states have legalized physician-assisted suicide. What’s the difference? According to Death with Dignity, a national end-of-life advocacy group, euthanasia is “the act of painlessly, but deliberately, causing the death of another who is suffering from an incurable, painful disease or condition.” Assisted suicide is when a doctor assists a patient in committing suicide, usually through a prescription of lethal drugs which the patient self-ingests. In the United States, doctors cannot directly end a patient’s life, but they can assist in providing the patient with means to end their own life in certain states.
Today, the assisted suicide and euthanasia debate focuses on voluntary end-of-life choices, meaning individuals choose to end their life and are not killed against their will. For Right to Die advocates, euthanasia and assisted suicide are compassionate or dignified options for those faced with insurmountable pain or severe loss of autonomy. Anita Hannig, an associate professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University, puts it this way. “Patients who endure intractable, painful diseases sometimes reach a moment when the prospect of staying alive feels worse than the prospect of dying. At that point, the idea of having a say over the timing and manner of their death can bring enormous comfort.”
Similarly, in a video from a San Diego County hospice, Dr. Flora shares her thoughts on California’s End of Life Option Act, which permits physician-assisted suicide. “It allows people to take control of their lives that are so out of control right now. I mean, imagine having that diagnosis of glioblastoma, you know, a horrible aggressive brain tumor or metastatic prostate cancer, you know, another very, very painful cancer, and not knowing what lies in your future. Not knowing how much you may be suffering because you’re suffering tremendously right now. And then to all of a sudden be able to say, ‘You know what? I see an end date. I’m going to choose the end date, and I’m going to choose how I die.’ And that’s what I think brings so much joy to most of my patients, or I would say 99% of my patients participating in it.”
According to the logic of pro-euthanasia advocates (and the majority of American adults), the presence of intense suffering gives moral permission for self-destruction. While suicide is discouraged in our society, it becomes an acceptable — and even morally permissive — option upon prognosis of terminal illness and suffering.
What is particularly concerning about this rational is the utilization of death as a solution to a problem. Philosophically speaking, if assisted suicide is justifiable based on terminal illness or suffering, where does one draw the line? What if prognoses are wrong or suffering occurs without a natural end in sight? Why does “death with dignity” apply to the terminally ill and not to others? And if everyone has a “right to die,” what are the implications for suicide?
While we cannot lose sight of compassion for suffering individuals, killing should not be an option. The lines of terminal illness and pain, while understandable, are rather arbitrary standards, explaining why a few European countries extend euthanasia and suicide options to those suffering from certain psychological and non-terminal illnesses. If suffering justifies self-destruction, what does that teach others about the purpose of life? Furthermore, advances in palliative care have significantly improved pain management; pain is not the primary reason why people choose to take their life.
The normalizing of death can only lead to a trivialization of life. The growing number of deaths by assisted suicide in Oregon and California point to the consequences of this mentality. Allowing someone to take his or her life is not truly compassionate or dignifying. As David Closson, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview, commented, “The implications of normalizing death is an inherent degrading and devaluing of the human person. We’re already facing a crisis in the Western world when it comes to the value of the human person … and so if we normalize euthanasia [and] physician assisted suicide, then once again we’re just going to make it more common place that human life is cheap, that human life is dispensable.”
Dr. Daniel P. Sulmasy, a professor of biomedical ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, agrees. “To assert that one values human life, and at the same time to commit suicide is contradictory and illogical. So, to kill oneself … necessarily devalues human life. And, because we are all human beings, therefore, every human being is (or should be) resentful of his or her life being devalued.”
Every person has intrinsic value and worth. Euthanasia and assisted suicide end a person’s life prematurely and (intentionally or unintentionally) weaken humanity’s understanding of the importance of life. As in Bubbie’s case, loss of autonomy is a primary motivation for considering death. But it also sends a clear and dangerous signal that a life marked by dependence and inability to enjoy certain activities is a life that is ugly, undignified, and no longer worth living. This is not to say suffering shouldn’t be alleviated whenever possible, but choosing death is not the solution.
Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who became quadriplegic after a diving accident as a teenager, understands the heartache of pain and dependence. However, her perspective is far from despair. Her joy is anchored in something much more satisfying than utilitarian promises or humanistic rationales. Tada draws her value and worth from her Creator, not from her lack of ability. It’s not easy to do, and she freely admits the daily struggles and burdens she must lay before her Savior.
However, thousands of people have been touched by her life, some even given hope to live. Like Bubbie, Tada recognizes the days ahead are marked by suffering and degeneration in this fallen world. But instead of turning to death, she flees to Jesus for relief. Her response to pain and suffering are in stark contrast to the secular perspective. “He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer His embrace.”
Does it get more dignified or beautiful than that?