Death shouldn’t be tampered with

The following article was published in the Telegraph-Journal on March 29, 2016. It was written by the Honorable Graydon Nicholas, his wife Beth and Drs. Brian and Elizabeth Phillps. Mr and Mrs. Nicholas and Dr. Elizabeth Phillips are members of the New Brunswick Right to Life Board of Advisors. What does it mean to die? Just after Easter, which for many concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may be a good a time to pose this question. It is also a timely question as our country considers passing a law on “medical assistance in dying,” a polite way of referring to the practices of doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia. For most of us death is something that naturally happens to us. Suicide is different. With suicide a person makes death happen. The same is true of its medically-assisted dying variants: a doctor helps to make death happen, through a lethal prescription (assisted suicide) or by administering lethal drugs (euthanasia). Is suicide in any of these forms a good way to die? Is it something for our society to put its stamp of approval upon, even provide for through the health care system? Is killing a form of caring? Other forms of making someone die include war, capital punishment and terrorism. Christ was put to death on a cross. We normally deplore such practices. Should we do otherwise in the case of doctor-assisted suicide? Our society generally views suicide as a social problem and has compassionately developed suicide prevention strategies. Why institutionalize assisted suicide for people who are suffering? Is that not inconsistent? For some the answer will be: it is medically necessary to help people in great pain. Two of us as doctors can attest: That is incorrect. Proper pain management and palliative care can relieve suffering. The problem is 70 per cent of Canadians lack good access to such care. Overcoming that problem is what society needs to do. There is no need to make anyone dead. As doctors we have seen that when people get the care they need their suicidal tendencies change. The objection will be made: polls say the public want assisted suicide. Actually, a national poll shows most people favor it only for the terminally ill. If we had good end of life care, public attitudes would likely change. Legalizing assisted suicide endangers people. In Quebec, which permits“medical aid in dying,”emergency room doctors have let people die from attempted suicides who could easily have been saved, because of confusion over whether they wanted to die. Doctors are trained to heal and comfort. To offer assisted suicide to patients is a betrayal of their trust. A clear medical line between caring and killing is essential. Someone may object: when doctors withdraw futile life support they make someone die. That is incorrect. They let someone die, not make them. A huge difference. Why do we generally regard suicide as a tragedy? Is it not because we view every human life as precious, even when someone has many problems? Why should we as a society make exceptions to that principle? The idea that life has inherent dignity is sometimes referred to as the sanctity of life principle. This is not just a religious principle. The Supreme Court of Canada has said it is foundational for our laws and way of life. Both the religious and non-religious can recognize the inherent dignity of life as a solid basis for human rights and social justice. That foundation is at risk, if we ensconce suicide as a health care right. For we will introduce, into the heart of society, the dangerous ideas that some lives are not worthy to be lived and society must provide for such lives to be terminated. Over time these ideas will tend to grow, like a bad disease. Making people die will tend to become a common substitute for treatment and care. Some people will argue we exaggerate. A suicide right, they say, will be confined to a few cases of extreme suffering by the terminally ill. That argument does not hold water. The proposed government plan extends the right to disability and chronic illness; suffering may be emotional rather than physical; it may be exercised even when relief treatment is available. The putative right would likely extend even further. Once legalized, the powerful notion of individual autonomy – “my body, my choice”– will tend to take over and eliminate limits on access. Already some legalization proponents argue the mentally ill, minors and dementia patients should not be excluded from choosing death. We can quickly move from death by alleged medical necessity to virtual death on demand, as Holland and Belgium have. Is that a healthy direction for our society? Is medicalized suicide on demand a hallmark of a progressive society? We should ask these questions before we open the door to making people die. For us suicide in whatever form is a needless tragedy. Dying is natural. Making someone die is not. We can eliminate suffering without eliminating the one who suffers.

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