There’s something about being in the bleak midwinter and having to think about suicide that seems especially unbearable. But at the very moment when many of us were in Washington protesting the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in all three trimesters of pregnancy, activists in New York’s state capital were making clear they were intensifying their efforts to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in the Empire State. This is a state (my home state) that’s already known as the abortion capital of the country, and last year it expanded abortion access. So here, we would be doubling down on death. It’s the last thing anyone needs.
Kristen Hanson, who lost her beloved husband J.J. to brain cancer a few years ago, opened another kind of press conference the other day in the statehouse. It was a gathering of doctors and other medical professionals speaking out against assisted suicide. Remember when doctors were about doing no harm? Some still are! And they’re honest. Sometimes, when a patient is diagnosed with a terminal disease, a doctor can’t give an accurate prediction of life expectancy. That was certainly the case with J. J. Hanson, who lived three years instead of the three months he and Kris were told to be prepared for. Fifty percent of the time, life-expectancy predictions are inaccurate, one of the doctors noted.
A palliative-care specialist from Syracuse, Dr. Mary-Ellen Edmiston, spoke, too; her voice was one of the most important. “No patient should have to spend his final days in pain and torment. And with the medical resources now available to us, no one has to,” she said. When people start to realize that there really are options that don’t involve taking lethal doses of medication to induce their own death, this debate and the dread of these kinds of devastating questions start to look different.
“Mercy” has been politicized by activists on one side of this debate. But is it merciful to make someone feel that he is expendable, a burden, better off dead? The kind of thinking that would make people feel that they are better thrown away, as Pope Francis often puts it, is not only evil; it has inevitable chilling effects. At what point does a disability — or physical and mental challenges — put you in that category? It won’t take you long in a Google search to find advocates for extending assisted suicide to people who struggle with depression.
Most of us can name a number of famous people who have ended their own lives in recent years. When even those who have abundant resources do this, what happens when our law says that suicide is acceptable, that it’s just another medical protocol? More and more people have admitted to me over the past few years that, while they would never kill themselves, they understand why some people might feel so desperate as to take their own lives. Mental illness, dark feelings of oppression, financial burdens, family and work conflicts — so many things in our lives can create turbulence in our own hearts and minds.
Getting mental-health help is important. The other day an Uber driver asked me, really without any conversation leading up to it: “Do you ever just live a little too much in your head? What do you do about it when you do? It can be too much.” Yes, it can. Talk about it! Make sure you have people in your life who won’t let you live in there alone! But what happens when our law says there’s an escape hatch for people feeling that what they have to handle is too much, that it’s getting in the way of other people and their happiness? In places where assisted suicide is legal, we have seen, the rate of all suicide increases. This clearly isn’t just a debate in our country — state by state — about assisted suicide. It’s about the value of human life. It’s about our relationships with one another.
If Kris Hanson had said, J.J., I love you, but I really have to be a mother and raise our son, so go ahead and take your life, they would never have had — among other things — another son together. J.J. managed to live longer than the life expectancy he and Kris had been quoted, and they found so much more of life for their family. And he became the most outspoken activist in the country on assisted suicide. He admitted, too, that he had faced moments in the struggle — even with the love and support of his wife and community and church and so many — when he would have been tempted to take poison if a doctor had prescribed it to him. It isn’t right; we should not make people believe that their lives have no value. It isn’t right to suggest anything other than that love is mercy.
This debate about assisted suicide isn’t simply about your position on legislation currently in New York State. This is a question about love. Do we love one another enough not to opt for building this exit ramp into our legal and medical infrastructure? Do we love one another enough to say that all life has value, and that dignity lies in respecting that truth until the very end?
It’s suffering and heart-wrenching, but amazing things can happen in those final months and days and hours. I’ve seen it, and I’m far from alone. Don’t deprive the vulnerable of love. There should be no off-ramp, but lots of roadside assistance.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.