When we discard the euphemism “death with dignity” and replace it with plain English, we see that the Vermont Legislature proposes to endorse and enable suicide for qualifying citizens. The idea is bad, and the bill is bad.
Certainly, terminal illness is a wrenching problem. But there are others. Loss of good name, heartbreak and financial ruin are among the other reasons for which competent persons commit suicide. Does anyone doubt that mental anguish can be as great as physical pain?
We can be sure that every person who ever took his own life felt that his reason for doing so was truly compelling. It is not the province of government to evaluate the motives for suicide, and to legislate the timing and circumstances in which a person may take his own life. Where is the justice or the compassion in providing clean, easy suicide to one person, while someone else, in equal anguish, has to do it the hard way? This is why right-thinking societies do not start granting exceptions to the no-suicide rule.
The bill, H. 274, is dishonest in its statement, “Action taken in accordance with this chapter shall not be construed for any purpose to constitute suicide (or) assisted suicide.” So someone will ingest a lethal substance for the sole and express purpose of ending his life, but we won’t call it suicide. If the bill’s drafters must misrepresent what they’re proposing, they shouldn’t propose it. Even where a terminal illness is present, someone who anticipates his natural death by committing suicide does not die from the disease, he dies by suicide.
Another flaw in any such bill is that safeguards against undue influence are impossible. How can we know that a patient is not being pressured when pressuring commonly operates under the gentle mask of support and concern? A cruelly ironic provision of this bill is its helpful promise that doctors who are unwilling to prescribe suicide for their patients will not be charged with abandonment of the patient! One would think it abandonment, even malpractice, for a doctor to abet his patient’s suicide.
It has been pointed out, and correctly, that doctor-enabled suicide is elder abuse waiting to happen. Let’s be aware that it also poses a great danger to young people by muddying the waters. We tend to think that if something is legal, then it’s all right. With what moral authority will mental health counselors try to convince despairing teens that suicide is not the answer, once the state has legitimized suicide by creating even a conditioned right to it?
This misguided bill will create worse problems than the one it purports to solve — and that’s a good definition of bad law. I urge its defeat.
Grace Weber lives in Weybridge.
From the Burlington Free Press, April 21, 2011