‘Prescribed’ suicide undercuts dignity
I wish to continue this month with some meditations on living mercy, particularly as mercy relates to the question of physician assisted suicide, or more accurately, physician prescribed suicide. Twenty-five states introduced legislation in 2015 to advance this form of suicide. Last year, and again this year, the Nebraska Unicameral’s Judiciary Committee took up the question.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who sponsored LB450, the "Adopt the Patient Choice at End of Life Act," summarized the heart of the argument in favor of physician prescribed suicide when he stated recently that "Pointless, needless pain – wholly useless agony – and suffering and the loss of personal dignity is neither ‘good’ or ‘ennobling,’ nor does it comport with the concept of human dignity."
Sen. Chambers’ argument is based on the notion that our dignity is dependent upon what we can or cannot do, on our function instead of on our being. His argument requires that we believe that pain and suffering strips us of our dignity because it assumes that personal independence is the standard for dignity. But none of that is true.
Our dignity as human beings exists by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. Poverty, marginalization, disability and suffering can trick us into believing we do not matter, that we have no dignity. But the truth is that our dignity is inalienable. It cannot be separated from us regardless of function or what others do to us.
So, it can never be merciful to say to those who suffer and have convinced themselves they have no dignity to go ahead and commit suicide. That’s the exact opposite of mercy. The merciful act would be to love them, accompany them, care for them in the midst of their suffering, treat their pain and remind them that their dignity transcends what they can or cannot do.
This principle of mercy pertains to so many other situations as well where we must accompany those in various sorts of pain around us, be it the pain of the end of life or the pain of poverty and isolation. As I wrote earlier this year, "Mercy is a love poured out on misery. Mercy becomes mercy when it comes into contact with pain and suffering."
LB450 is not a bill about mercy or about dignity. It is a bill that undercuts what human dignity means, and so it stunts how we as a society are called to live mercy. For this reason, the Archdiocese of Omaha recently released a podcast discussing these issues. Entitled "It’s Good That You Are Here," it tells the story of Ann Humphrey, one of the founders of the "death with dignity" movement whose life is a perfect example of how these ideas can harm real people. You can find the episode on our Facebook page or by visiting archomaha.org/news/blog.
I also encourage readers to educate themselves about this matter by visiting the website of the Patients Rights Council (patientsrightscouncil.org). There you will find extensive information about the truth of physician prescribed suicide and its realities in the U.S. and globally. There you will discover how, despite the assurances of supporters, physician prescribed suicide can be abused in order to put to death those whom we view as a "burden." The inconvenient truth is that these laws harm the most vulnerable.
Let me close by drawing attention to all those who work with hospice patients, who live mercy every day as they witness to the dignity of their patients regardless of ability. May they be blessed for their good work.
Omar Gutierrez is manager of the archdiocesan Office of Missions and Justice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.