In 1990, Jack Kevorkian performed his first public assisted suicide, as much of the United States looked on in horror. He was dubbed “Dr. Death.” He was prosecuted unsuccessfully several times until convicted in 1999 for his assistance in the death of a 52-year-old man with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he videotaped and 60 Minutes aired amidst outrage and denouncements.
Things have changed since then. Oregon, Washington, California, Vermont, Colorado, and Montana now allow physician-assisted suicide and more than twenty others are currently looking at laws to make the practice legal. The rationale for euthanasia laws like physician-assisted suicide is to allow people to choose for themselves how they will die. “Death with dignity” is the mantra and the underlying principle the proponents espouse is to give people their own agency and responsibility for how they die. Freedom of choice, or so they say.
There’s a superficial libertarian appeal to this argument. Treat people as agents of their own destiny and give them the freedom to make their own choices. But, for me, it breaks down when we reach the point of death.
This week, Wesley J. Smith reported in NRO about the medical community in Canada moving to conjoin organ harvesting with assisted suicide. According to the underlying report, people who seek physician-assisted suicide are viewed as some of the best candidates for organ donation because, among other things, it’s easier for doctors to plan around the donating patient’s death. So, the medical community wants to find ways to encourage more of these patients to become organ donors.
We should pause for a second and think about consequences. It’s laudable that terminally ill patients would want their deaths to have meaning, by potentially giving someone else life. But what about people who are not terminally ill? What about people who have chronic conditions and simply want to die, like some of Kevorkian’s victims? What about people who have psychiatric issues and seek physician-assisted suicide, as is allowed in the Netherlands and Belgium?
The incentives to encourage suicide to obtain healthy organs for others are strong. And there is little evidence that we’re willing to put limits on our societal tendencies to treat people as individuals having intrinsic worth. On the contrary, the trend seems to be to treat a person’s value as almost entirely dependent on someone else’s use for him.
Indeed, too many of us already assign varying worth to human beings and treat some of them as disposable people or mere collections of body parts. Down Syndrome babies are being aborted at an astonishing rate—in Iceland, nearly 100 percent. Why? Because it’s viewed as a “cure” for the condition and, in reality, many people think they’re not worth the trouble. (Ask a parent of a Down Syndrome child if her child is worth the trouble.) Hardly a day goes by on Twitter when I don’t see an argument that abortion is better than taking care of “unwanted” children. Better to kill a child than for him to be born into poverty, so the argument goes. Planned Parenthood sells aborted baby parts while collecting federal money, which is then funneled to politicians who support their cause and funding. Talk about perverse incentives. We demand taxpayer-funded research on embryos that parents don’t want anymore.
And it’s not just the unborn who are devalued. University professors argue that infanticide is morally permissible because infants are no different than fetuses. Charlie Gard was denied a potentially life-saving treatment for no reason other than subjective assessments (by people other than his parents) about his quality of life. Terri Schiavo was put to death against her parents’ wishes, again based on subjective quality of life assessments.
Our society is all too willing to make judgments about other human beings’ quality of life and their usefulness in order to justify death. Against this backdrop, pairing assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia with organ donation is a dangerous slope. It’s not hard to envision people with psychological issues or who lack the mental capacity to make these decisions being taken advantage of for their organs.
Yes, I believe people should be in charge of their own lives and decisions. But when it comes to death, we should draw the line. It is permanent and unalterable. A human being’s right to live is not dependent on someone else valuing him. People are not means to greater societal ends. They are ends in and of themselves. Treating a human being as a collection of parts or a drain on society to be discarded as without value is a disgrace and yet it is done with no compunction whatsoever. “Death with dignity” is meaningless when life is not treated with dignity.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.