There aren’t many issues with which I find myself in agreement with the elderly male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, so when I do find now-and-again common ground with them, I have to check my positions repeatedly because they are so often prone to being counter-intuitive and cruel.
Yet there I was in the run-up to the Nov. 6 election, hoping that, on this one issue, they (and I) would snatch victory from what appeared at one point to be an easy win in Massachusetts for the so-called death with dignity movement.
I was glad to see Question 2 go down to defeat on Election Day, by a close vote of 51 percent to 49 percent. Bay State voters are clearly conflicted on these issues, which is a very good thing. They should be.
Question 2 seemed straightforward enough: it would allow physicians to prescribe a dose of lethal pills to any terminally ill person with less than six months to live, and the decision had to be in consultation with a concurring physician.
Proponents said these safeguards were enough to prevent someone who is suicidal through depression or overwhelming life challenges — rather than someone who is suffering intractable pain from a terminal illness — from killing themselves with a doctor’s assistance.
Data from other states with these laws suggest that it would be rarely used, at least for now. But we should be squeamish about any legislation that moves physicians from what should be their default position as healers — first, do no harm — into positions of deciding who should be allowed to take their own life.
But that is not my chief concern. I have spent my adult life listening to the stories of unfortunate LGBT people who were, at least initially, disowned by parents who felt that they would have their son or daughter be dead rather than turn out to be not of the heterosexual norm. The line between love and cruelty can be crossed with shocking ease by parents in these situations who feel betrayed by a child’s revelation. And the guilt felt by LGBT children can be overwhelming.
Now put those same sons and daughters in a hospital bed dying of a terminal disease, estranged from the family that now swoops in and starts making decisions through the prism of hurt and betrayal they have been feeling. Such situations might be made better these days because we can protect our relationships through marriage. But not everyone is married, and parents can have deep financial and legal pockets when they are fighting the surviving spouse, partner or friends whom they suspect made their child a homosexual.
So there you are: feeling sick and helpless in a hospital bed, surrounded day after day by a family that has cordoned you off from your real support system just when you need it most. In addition, they are still making you feel guilty about your so-called lifestyle. The forces working against your will to live could be exhausting and overwhelming, especially if you are person who is prone to feeling guilty about “being a burden” on others.
It should be noted that there were at one time many people with AIDS in the 1980s who were considering killing themselves when that disease looked to be a death sentence. Illnesses freighted with moral baggage are not good candidates for rational end-of-life decision-making. Good thing it wasn’t easy at that time for doctors to end your life, because the gap between AIDS seeming hopeless and the time when we started having treatments to extend your life was not very long.
Most of all, I don’t trust our society as it is currently constituted to be able to make these decisions wisely and with compassion. A society that is still debating whether health care is a basic human right — and where prisons are the de facto holding pens for the mentally ill — is not a society where I want it to be easier to commit suicide under dire circumstances. We too readily look for signs that someone is getting more than their share of resources, rather than asking how we came to a point in the richest society on Earth where there is not enough money to tend to basic human needs.
Sometimes the pressure to get out of the way is more subtle, as wheelchair-bound freelance journalist Ben Mattlin wrote in an Oct. 31 New York Times piece about being a profoundly disabled man subject to the many ways people, including doctors, can make one feel expendable.
“[D]octors feel entitled to render judgments and voice their opinions,” wrote Mattlin. “To them, I suppose, I must represent a failure of their profession, which is shortsighted. I am more than my diagnosis and my prognosis.”
“This is but one of many invisible forces of coercion. Others include that certain look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes, or the way nurses and friends sigh in your presence while you’re zoned out in a hospital bed. All these can cast a dangerous cloud of depression upon even the most cheery of optimists, a situation clinicians might misread since, to them, it seems perfectly rational.”
Ours is not a society, nor health care system, that are mature enough to handle these decisions.