On election day, Massachusetts voters had an opportunity to make physician-assisted suicide legal in that state. But the ballot measure failed, and so there are still only three states—Oregon, Washington, and Montana—in which a terminally ill patient can request a lethal dose of medication to be self-administered once suffering erases all the rewards of living.
In an op-ed I wrote a few years back, I lamented the fact that ten years had passed since Oregon’s path-breaking statute was enacted and still no national momentum had been generated on the issue. Here is some of what I wrote in 2007:
For a decade now, Oregon doctors have been permitted to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient who makes written and oral requests, consults two physicians, and endures a mandatory waiting period. The patient’s free choice is paramount throughout this process. Neither relatives nor doctors can apply on the patient’s behalf, and the patient himself administers the lethal dose.
Elsewhere in America, however, the political influence of religious conservatism has thwarted passage of similar legislation, leaving terminal patients with nothing but a macabre menu of frightening, painful, and often violent end-of-life techniques universally regarded as too inhumane for use on sick dogs or mass murderers.
The right to life includes and implies the right to commit suicide. To hold otherwise–to declare that society must give you permission to kill yourself—is to contradict the right to life at its root. If you have a duty to go on living, despite your better judgment, then your life does not belong to you, and you exist by permission, not by right.
For these reasons, each individual has the right to decide the hour of his death and to implement that solemn decision as best he can. The choice is his because the life is his. And if a doctor is willing (not forced) to assist in the suicide, based on an objective assessment of his patient’s mental and physical state, the law should not stand in his way.
Religious conservatives’ opposition to the Oregon approach stems from the belief that human life is a gift from the Lord, who puts us here on earth to carry out His will. Thus, the very idea of suicide is anathema, because one who “plays God” by causing his own death, or assisting in the death of another, insults his Maker and invites eternal damnation, not to mention divine retribution against the decadent society that permits such sinful behavior.
If a religious conservative contracts a terminal disease, he has a legal right to regard his own God’s will as paramount, and to instruct his doctor to stand by and let him suffer, just as long as his body and mind can endure the agony, until the last bitter paroxysm carries him to the grave. But conservatives have no right to force such mindless, medieval misery upon doctors and patients who refuse to regard their precious lives as playthings of a cruel God.
According to a recent report headlined “Big donations helped defeat doctor-assisted suicide in Massachusetts,” the lion’s share of the $5 million spent opposing the measure came from the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, which claims support from both secular and religious sources. But if you drill down into where that Committee’s $4.27 million came from, you find that religion obviously motivated many of the biggest spenders:
Contributions to the successful effort to defeat the ballot question included $1 million from the Boston Catholic Television Center; $20,000 from the Catholic Health Association in St. Louis; $56,000 from Heartbeat International in Columbus, Ohio; $450,000 from the Knights of Columbus in New Haven; Conn., $30,000 from Mass Citizens for Life in Ludlow and about $45,000 from the Mass Citizens for Life in Boston; $250,000 from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston; $50,000 from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Fall River; $1 million from St. John’s Seminary Corporation in Boston; $420,000 from The Catholic Association, Inc. in Washington; $50,000 from The Society of Jesus of New England in Watertown; and $475,000 from Sean Fieler, president of Equinox Partners in Princeton, N.J., who is also chairman of an anti-abortion group.