Imagine you have Lou Gehrig’s disease. You know you are dying.
But your struggle is made even more difficult by advocates who claim:
1) You should commit suicide if you want “death with dignity;” and,
2) Your society should help you do it.
That was the circumstance in which my hospice patient–nay, good friend–Robert Salamanca found himself in the late 1990s. As the Supreme Court grappled with whether to create an assisted-suicide Roe v. Wade (it refused 9-0), the media covered the story like they just did Brittany Maynard–with ALS patients used as the bloody flag to create emotional support for doctor-prescribed death.
Bob was devastated by such advocacy. I will never forget coming to his house one day after one of the networks did a high-profile story on an ALS patient who wanted assisted suicide. He was livid: “They are trying to drive me from the well-lit boulevards into the dark alley,” he said angrily.
Bob also told me that such advocacy made it harder to “keep moving forward,” e.g., to maintain an upbeat outlook and “get every moment that life still has to offer,” while constantly hearing that life with progressing disabilty wasn’t worth living and having to contend with pro-euthanasia fear-mongering that he would die “choking on his own spit” (to quote the lie uttered repeatedly on television by Jack Kevorkian’s odious lawyer, Geoffrey Feiger–including during a debate against me on Good Morning America.)
In fact, Bob had been suicidal. He had wanted to go to Kevorkian, but his family wouldn’t cooperate. And he was so glad! “I came out of the fog,” he told me. “I am so glad to still be alive.”
Bob was so incensed against assisted suicide that he wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. He told me that he hoped I would make use of his work in the continuing fight against assisted suicide. In that spirit–and as an antidote to all the Brittany Maynard media poison–I reprint his entire piece below:
I DON’T WANT A CHOICE TO DIE
I have lived with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease) for seven years. On January 8, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning whether terminally ill people have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. After the two-hour hearing, with its blending of emotion and law, the justices seemed highly skeptical.
I hope so. For as Chicago’s beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wrote to the Supreme Court just before he died: “There can be no such thing as a ‘right to assisted suicide’ because there can be no legal and moral order which tolerates the killing of innocent human life, even if the agent of death is self-administered. Creating a new ‘right’ to assisted suicide will endanger society and send a false signal that a less than ‘perfect’ life is not worth living.”
Euthanasia advocates believe they are doing people like me a favor. They are not. The negative emotions toward the terminally ill and disabled generated by their advocacy is actually at the expense of the “dying” and their families and friends. We often feel disheartened and without self-assurance because of a false picture of what it is like to die created by these enthusiasts who prey on the misinformed.
What we, the terminally ill, need is exactly the opposite — to realize how important our lives are. And our loved ones, friends, and, indeed, society need to help us feel that we are loved and appreciated unconditionally.
Instead, reporting in the media too often makes us feel like token presences, burdens who are better off dead. For example, in a recent ABC “Nightline,” Ted Koppel interviewed a pro-euthanasia supporter with ALS who announced to the world that he was going to take his life on a specific date. He felt he was obligated to do so because of his beliefs and the terminal situation of his disease. I found this act of showboating pretentious and ABC’s presentation of his condition exploitive. Mr. Koppel asked him why he had not yet taken his life and his only answer was… no answer. It was obvious to me that despite what he said, this man really wanted to live. Indeed, the people around him urged him to live. He listened. He did not commit suicide but died a peaceful and natural death with loved ones at his side.
Many pro-euthanasia groups “showcase” people with ALS. They portray us as feeble, unintelligible and dying by slow suffocation. This is absolutely false, and I protest their efforts vehemently. By receiving proper medical care, a terminally ill person can pass away peacefully, pain-free and with dignity. We are not people just waiting for someone to help us end our misery, but to the contrary, we are people reaching out to love… to be loved… wanting to feel life at its best.
Too many people have accepted the presumption that an extermination of some human lives can be just. Are we becoming a society so starved for heroes that we are too quick to embrace the Jack Kevorkians of the world? Where has our sense of community gone? True, terminal illness is frightening, but the majority of us overpower the symptoms and are great contributors to life.
If physician-assisted suicide is legally available, the right to die may become a duty to die. The hopelessly ill may be subtly pressured to get their dying over with — not only by cost-counting providers but by family members concerned about burdensome bills, impatient for an inheritance, exhausted by care-giving or just anxious to spare a loved one further suffering.
In my view, the pro-euthanasia followers’ posture is a great threat to the foundation upon which all life is based, and that is hope. I exhort everyone: Life is worth living, and life is worth receiving. I know. I live it every day.
Robert Salamanca, of Pleasanton, CA, is living intensely with ALS. His article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2/19/97, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Bob died peacefully–with dignity–of ALS in his sleep. I was honored to give his eulogy.