This week, the Massachusetts legislature debated allowing physician assisted suicide in the Commonwealth. The sponsors of the bill assure us that it will be limited only to terminally ill patients who have already exhausted all possible treatments and have undergone counseling.
While such measures are already in force in three other states and several countries around the world, enshrining a so-called "right to die" in law would raise many legal and ethical problems.
First of all, if we say that everyone has a right to die "with dignity and on their own terms", then how can the legislation be limited to the terminally ill? If I can choose when and how I'll die, then why can't I ask to be killed when I am first diagnosed with a terminal illness? Why should I have to go through treatment and counseling? And if everyone has such a right, then how can it be limited only to those who are physically ill? Why should a depressed person or person with a mental illness not be allowed to request a life-ending drug? How about other persons prone to suicide such as gay teenagers who frequently botch their attempts at killing themselves and end up with disfigurements or brain damage as a result? Why should they not be allowed to die "on their own terms." Once we call suicide, assisted or otherwise, a right, then we cannot put limits on who chooses to exercise that right.
Secondly, once we establish that someone has a right to die, then who would do the killing? Presumably it would be doctors, but what if a person's doctor has a moral issue with ending her patient's life? Could a nurse or other health care professional administer a lethal drug? Could the patient's spouse or parent do it? Would the state have to license someone to administer lethal drugs?
Such legislation also raises the spectre of doctors who are unable to make a living curing people now turning to killing them, much as Jack Kevorkian did in the 90's and as many abortion doctors do today. A shadow industry of those willing to administer lethal drugs to the ill would emerge staffed by unscrupulous people who would no doubt be willing to skirt safeguards artificially built into any right to die legislation.
Finally, if everyone has the right to die on ones own terms, what are the rights of those who decide that they want to continue living even though they are terminally ill? Will they be protected from having life support denied them by a hospital administrator or insurance manager? Will such legislation assert that everyone has a right to nutrition and hydration as long as his or her body is able to absorb it? Will any legislation declaring a "right to die on ones own terms" protect my right to continue living no matter what burden it places on others?
No one wants to see others suffer. All of us want to relieve the mental anguish of those who feel that they are a burden to their loved ones. However, our compassion has to be focused on relieving suffering and making the last days of the terminally ill as comfortable and meaningful as possible, not on killing them.