Physician-assisted suicide offers no dignity, no compassion

February 15, 2017

By Christopher Gunty

editor@CatholicReview.org
 
In 2003, my dad was in his final weeks of life, suffering from prostate cancer. He stayed at home, sitting or lying on the sofa in the living room.

One afternoon, the hospice nurse stopped by to check on him. At one point, she asked him to rate his pain, a typical question in the protocol. As I sat off to one side, Dad looked at me kind of quizzically. “Dad, she wants a number: one to 10,” I said.

“Nine,” he said, and then paused, adding, “point three seven five.”

At that point I realized he wasn’t confused; he was calibrating. Dad was a math teacher. The pain was worse than nine, but not 10. Not even nine and a half. Just 9.375.

The nurse commented that no one had ever been that precise – and that with the pain at that level, she needed to give him more pain medication.

Dad was dying; no doubt about it. But he didn’t need, or want, to end his life early. What he needed was good palliative care, which he was getting from the hospice nurses, and the presence of his family.

Eventually, when it was time, we pulled the sofa away from the wall and surrounded Dad with love as we prayed him home to the Lord.

A group called Compassion and Choices has targeted Maryland for passage of a bill, expected to be introduced in the 2017 General Assembly, that allows physician-assisted suicide. There are many problems with the proposed legislation.

The bill would authorize patients whose doctor has given them less than six months to live to request a lethal dosage of medication – usually 100 barbiturate pills. The patient can walk up to the prescription counter at the local drug store and pick them up.

There are no controls on these dangerous substances, no education on proper use, no education on disposal if the patient later decides not to use the pills for suicide, and no way for pharmacies to take back unused drugs. The bill would not even require a valid ID at the counter, so virtually anyone can pick up the pills. A lot of these pills could find their way to the black market or street dealers – or into the hands of children visiting their grandparents.

Two witnesses are required at the patient’s request for the suicide protocol, but no witness is required for the administration. Nothing prevents the patient from being coerced to take the drug.

The bill provides no protection for those with disabilities, who are especially vulnerable to coercion or pressure. It also doesn’t provide any screening for depression, which often accompanies a terminal diagnosis. Those in the final stages of life need mental, spiritual and physical care, not an easy way out.

Perhaps the saddest of all is that the prescribing physician must “recommend” that the patient tell his or her family about their plans, but the law does not require such notification. I can’t imagine anything that would add more to a family’s grief than to know they could have been aware of their loved one’s anguish and plans, but were not informed.

In my dad’s case, we were able to provide him with the care and love he deserved in his final months and days. He needed – and got – real compassion, not the false compassion that “Compassion and Choices” is hawking. He passed away with true dignity that respected his body and soul – not a “death with dignity” by taking 100 pills.

Tell your legislator that this would be a bad law. Physician-assisted suicide is not death with dignity.