LDS Church leader Bruce R. McConkie died in 1985. If my memory serves me correctly, we were told at the time that Elder McConkie knew when he would die. He got dressed in a suit, laid on his bed, gathered his family around him, said goodbyes, and then he passed. For most of us, that’s the perfect way to go, isn’t it? It is dignified, considerate of loved ones and a testimony to a life well lived.
Not all of us have such a connection to heaven. But, I dare say, all of us would like to die in that sort of circumstance – with dignity and love.
At the July interim meeting of the state Legislature, its Health and Human Services Committee entertained legislation sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck regarding assisted suicide. Regardless of where you are on this issue, the presentation was top notch. The arguments were well organized, articulated and compelling. Assisted suicide is a complex moral, ethical and legal issue. And the emotional factors involved raise an otherwise normal legislative debate to a level at which every Utahn can relate.
This debate has been waged for many decades and now, in an era of greater consciousness over progressive ideas such as racial sensitivities, gay rights and the legalization of marijuana, assisted suicide feels right to many more people today.
The case for assisted suicide is simple: Terminally ill patients deserve to die with dignity. The case against assisted suicide is equally simple: Life itself is dignity and every life is precious and has impacts beyond the individual. Of course, the legislative debate gets into all sort of minutia – which consumed most of the committee presentations.
I have long opposed assisted suicide as part of a trending culture of death. It’s okay to kill babies in the womb and now we are being asked to accept killing the infirm as a matter of dignity and love. I always considered dying with dignity, surrounded by love, as primarily a responsibility of family and society, not just the hope of the terminally ill. In other words, it’s those who give care and comfort to the dying who create an atmosphere of dignity and love.
So, for me, the question about assisted suicide is this: Does it create an atmosphere of dignity and love? If it does, perhaps there are circumstances that we should allow. If it doesn’t, it should stay prohibited.
I checked with my LDS faith leaders about assisted suicide. They have stated that they oppose euthanasia, which they also call assisted suicide. That’s what I figured. What threw me a bit was how they define euthanasia: “deliberately putting to death a person who is suffering from an incurable condition or disease.” While I fully understand this position, I struggle with the idea that assisted suicide is “putting to death a person.” I struggle with the idea that people other than the terminally ill are deciding the patient’s fate. In fact, the LDS Church supports the very scenario in which other people make the death decision to pull the plug on a terminally ill patient. Why is assisted suicide couched as putting a person to death – like an execution decided by others – when the patient herself is asking to die after a failed struggle with a terminal illness?
Nearly every one of us is aware of a case in which a person diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only weeks or months to live, regardless of treatments, actually was found to not have the illness or the illness went into remission on its own. This is an argument against assisted suicide. But it’s also an argument in favor of prudent and cautious approaches to assisted suicide in cases where improper diagnoses and fate itself aren’t in play.
Regarding assisted suicide, I have two rules. First, we err on the side of life. Life is a purpose in and of itself. Death, while an inevitable consequence of mortality, needs no encouragement. And, second, nothing humane should be illegal. We permit, even encourage, loved ones to withdraw life sustaining care from terminally ill patients at a certain point – that point being when we know the patient is going to die. So, I have to ask, why is that not considered assisted suicide? In moral and ethical terms, it’s actually worse – a third party is making a decision to kill a person, which we euphemistically call “letting them die naturally.” Those of us who have had to make those third party decisions for a dying loved one know exactly how worse that decision can be.
Opponents of assisted suicide need to come up with better arguments against it. There are too many humane circumstances in which it not only makes sense, it actually turns out to be the most dignified and loving way to die.