I have been delighted to see a number of liberal voice standing up to voice their opposition to Massachusetts’ Question 2 called the “Death With Dignity Act” which will legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide in line with the way Oregon and Washington have already done. Attorney Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy published an opinion piece entitled “Question 2 Insults Kennedy’s Memory” where she argues that a true death with dignity is one that is approached with justice and care, not death:
My late husband Sen. Edward Kennedy called quality, affordable health care for all the cause of his life. Question 2 turns his vision of health care for all on its head by asking us to endorse patient suicide — not patient care — as our public policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens of care at the end of life. We’re better than that. We should expand palliative care, pain management, nursing care and hospice, not trade the dignity and life of a human being for the bottom line.
In a blog post for the Washington Post, EJ Dionne makes a similar argument. He also argues, I think rightly, that we need to have a more frank societal discussion about a culture of over-treatment at the end of life which leads people to fear an excessively prolonged illness and death:
We need to draw another bright line between removing artificial life support and death by physician assisted suicide. Here is where some conservatives who probably agree with my arguments went wrong on the Terri Schiavo case. In the case of removing support, we are acknowledging that medical advances have allowed us to trump nature and to keep someone alive long after they would otherwise have died. There is no moral obligation to keep a terminally ill patient alive through artificial, and particularly through heroic means. In the second case, we are taking active measures to kill. I am very uneasy about erasing this line, and it is why I hope Massachusetts voters will reject Question 2.
Opposition to assisted-suicide is a point on which liberals and conservatives can find broad consensus. Assisted suicide is ultimately contrary to human dignity and to the worth of the person, who should never be killed, not by another and not by the person herself. On this point, conservatives are in agreement. Assisted suicide also does not provide for the needs of the most vulnerable and most marginalized. Instead, it legally sanctions that those with the greatest needs at the end of life are a burden. In this sense, assisted suicide is contrary to the desire for social justice that liberals are so passionate about.
By working together in opposing assisted suicide, conservatives and liberals can push each other’s platforms to become more consistent with their own values. Conservatives can be pushed to commit themselves to more just health care system in which more people have access to comprehensive end of life care that attends to not only their physical needs, but also their spiritual, emotional, mental, and social needs. Conservatives can also be pushed to better distinguish between killing and withdrawing or foregoing futile and excessively burdensome treatment. Accepting death is not the same as killing. Liberals on the other hand can see in this issue that causing death, even for seemingly merciful reasons, is a grave violation of social justice. A commitment to social justice must involve a commitment to the life and dignity of all people.
I hope the citizens of the great state of Massachusetts, my former home, take the right stance next week and vote against Question 2. And I hope that in the wake of the initiative, we have a more fruitful societal conversation about what it means to allow people to die with dignity.
Amazingly magenta resistance, isn’t it? Here are a few more resistant responses to Q2:
Times Op-Ed by a disability rights advocate: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/opinion/suicide-by-choice-not-so-fast.html?_r=2&hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1351782511-DpaCgA9+IFFgAF5xZDjypQ&
Boston Globe editorial http://bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2012/11/01/election-endorsement-question/qAAp21DlC6mkoGYPjA9J6M/story.html
Boston Herald editorial http://bostonherald.com/news/opinion/editorials/view/20221022no_on_question_2
And there is more: major newspapers in Worcester, Lowell, New Bedford, Salem, Fitchburg, Cape Cod, Gloucester also oppose Question 2. Stunningly diverse opposition.
Beth– Thanks for this – and I agree that this is a nice “magenta” moment on this issue, an issue where the horse is not already out of the barn, you might say. I especially appreciate someone like EJ Dionne getting RIGHT the “bright line” between letting die and actively causing death. We all know as ethicists that even here, there are complicated cases. But at a basic level, we need to keep that line prominent.
Which I think means we should reflect further on WHY this issue (and not others) is commanding a bipartisan response. Why do more people “get” this issue, and not other issues. Two issues occur to me: autonomy and a kind of pure utilitarian logic. I think advocates of this measure have an extremely strong and overriding belief in autonomy – this is why the dependent state prior to death is such an affront – and I think many others simply do not believe as strongly in absolute autonomy. The whole notion of “suicide” – “taking your own life” – strikes them as not something that is autonomy. The mystery would then be why on an issue like abortion, they will turn to autonomy arguments. How can we take the (correct) refusal of absolute autonomy on this issue and help people see that it applies to other issues, as well? It’s also the case that people who are against this ultimately seem to believe that it is not justifiable to use any means to achieve a desired end. I’m sure euthnasia advocates would criticize Dionne and his distinction by saying, what’s the real difference? The outcome is the same. But again, people will turn around and be utilitarian on other issues. I think the anti-autonomy and anti-utilitarian “instincts” that underlie this magenta consensus might be a helpful place to think about dialogue on other issues where there is less consensus.