The California Legislature is considering Senate Bill 128 to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps some lawmakers see this as progressive, a way to promote humans rights and liberty. Oregon and Washington permit physician-assisted suicide, and Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland allow physicians to help people end their lives. Recently the Canadian Supreme Court struck down Canada’s law banning physician-assisted suicide.
Is this the wave of the future? Or is it a descent into barbarism that undermines the value of human life?
Debate over assisted suicide inflames passions because it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. Are we morally significant beings with intrinsic value?
Do we believe that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
Or, are we simply the chance combination of chemicals thrown together over eons in an impersonal universe? Are we nothing but animals whose love and morality are products of random evolutionary processes – and thus have no objective reality?
Legalizing assisted suicide is essentially treating people either like animals or, worse, like things.
Peter Singer, a leading bioethicist supporting euthanasia, professes that humans are not special, but are just another animal. Nobel Prize-winning biologist Francis Crick has said, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” No wonder Crick thought infanticide was acceptable.
As a historian who has written about the history of euthanasia, I have noticed that this kind of disdain for the sanctity of human life has led down some rather dark paths. By the early 20th century, many scientists and physicians in the U.S. and elsewhere were labeling people with disabilities as “inferior,” “useless,” “burdens,” “unfit” and even “persons of negative value.” The Nazi regime dubbed them “life unworthy of life,” “useless eaters” and “subhumans.” Then, in less than six years, they murdered over 200,000 disabled people among the 7 million they annihilated.
My point is not that assisted suicide in Washington or Oregon is the same as Nazi euthanasia. However, it seems to be based on some of the same attitudes – specifically, the notion that some people’s lives are not worth living and they are a burden both to themselves and to others. Instead of encouraging them to live, assisted suicide proponents suggest we should treat them like animals and put them out of their misery.
Legalizing assisted suicide sends the wrong signal to those who are suffering. People who are facing pain and debility need to be encouraged and lovingly reminded that their lives are valuable and important. Legalizing assisted suicide conveys the false message that their lives are useless and that society approves of them killing themselves.
Once we tolerate, or even encourage, suicide, we enter perilous territory. Look at what is happening in Switzerland and Belgium, two leading countries practicing assisted suicide. Suicide clinics in Switzerland have delivered the death blow to patients who were not even ill, much less suffering. One Italian woman was disturbed because she was losing her beauty as she aged. Suicide to the rescue. A retired teacher from England decided she just didn’t fit in very well in the modern world. A Swiss suicide clinic removed her from the world.
In Belgium, about 2 percent of all deaths are physician-assisted suicide. Many physicians are killing disabled patients without their consent. In one disturbing case, a Belgian woman with anorexia was sexually abused by a psychiatrist. After this psychological trauma she requested physician-assisted suicide. Another psychiatrist complied and signed her death warrant.
We need to stand up to this culture of death and promote life, love and real compassion. If pain is a problem, fight the pain. Don’t encourage those in pain to kill themselves. If despair is the problem, show them love. Don’t tell them to end their lives prematurely.
Whether we legalize assisted suicide will show whether we value human lives and whether we believe humans are important. Let’s not treat each other like animals or things, but rather with dignity, respect and compassion.
Weikart, Ph.D., is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of “From Darwin to Hitler” and “Hitler’s Ethic.”