The Corner

Health Care

No Parent Should Ask a Child to Kill


The New York Times continues to publish articles that push euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The current example was written in a way that is supposed to inoculate the cause from criticism, as a daughter laments her inability to kill her cancer-stricken mother as the elder woman demanded. From,” Could I Kill My Mother?” by Sarah Lyall:

I know what I’m supposed to do, because she has told me many times. One of the stories passed down as gospel in our tiny family is about how my late father, a doctor, helped his own mother — my grandmother Cecilia, whom I never met — at the end of her life. Her cancer was unbearable. “So he gave her a big dose of morphine to stop the pain,” my mother has always told my brother and me, as if reaching the end of a fairy tale. “It had the side effect of stopping her heart.”

As it happens, I have a big dose of morphine right here in the house. I also have some hefty doses of codeine, Ambien, Haldol and Ativan that I’ve cunningly stockpiled from the hospice service, like a squirrel hoarding for winter. In my top drawer, next to Mom’s passport, are more than 100 micrograms worth of fentanyl patches — enough to kill her and several passers-by.

But I am not a trained assassin. I am not a doctor. I am not very brave. I’m just a person who wants to do the most important thing that her mother has ever asked of her. I’m also a resident of New York State, where assisted suicide is illegal.

Lyall’s point, of course, is that it is wrong to prevent doctors from assisting suicides. After all, if it were legal, she wouldn’t have felt the awful weight of her mother’s lethal request.

But here’s the thing: A doctor is not a trained assassin either. Assisted suicide should never be considered a medical act. To the contrary, it is a betrayal of medical ethics as all but universally understood for thousands of years.

Something else needs saying about this article regardless of the anger it might spark: No parent should ever ask his or her child to kill. That’s not loving and it’s not fair. It places the child in a terrible predicament, subject to awful potential guilt whether they do the deed or not. (I have had moving discussions with people whose parents asked for this, and their anguish for refusing is heartbreaking.)

Moreover, no sick person should ever expect people who love them to gather at their bedside while he or she commits suicide or is killed by a lethal jab. It places loving family members and friends in a terrible moral and existential predicament: Attend, and they validate the suicide, while potentially confirming the suicidal person’s worst fears that he or she is a “burden” or may be less-well remembered if the family witnesses the decline.

But refuse to attend, and one risks discord with the suicidal loved one — not to mention accusations of being “judgmental” and potential ostracization from suicide-approving relatives and friends. For the person who opposes assisted suicide, it’s a terrible conundrum.

In the end, Lyall did not end her mother’s life, but loved her in a wholly appropriate and gentle way by reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to her mom:

You are not alone, I repeat. You’ll live on, the way Charlotte does, through your grandchildren and their children. It’s O.K. now. You can go.

As I put the book away, I see that her eyes are closed, finally, and that her breathing has evened out, so that it is shallow but calm.

It takes one more day. There are, it turns out, many different ways to help someone die.

Exactly right.

I choked up reading that passage as it reminded me of when my most beloved Italian immigrant grandmother was dying. Mom would get into bed with her and sing Italian nursery rhymes until Grandma fell asleep. It was a gift my mother gave her mother that I will remember as long as I live.

The assisted-suicide movement has introduced the potential for great family conflict and guilt around the death bed. That isn’t compassionate — it’s a prescription for breaking hearts.

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