Against Physician-Assisted Suicide: A New Law Would Feed A Throwaway Culture

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By Charles Camosy

There will be a renewed push to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in New York State in 2020.

Some think of this as a debate between religious and secular activists, the former in favor of traditional morals and rules and the latter in favor of individual freedom and autonomy. But the debate is actually much more nuanced and interesting.

For instance, only 43% of white Catholics disapprove of PAS, while 63% of Hispanic Catholics disapprove. Only 36% of white mainline Protestants disapprove of the practice, but the number of black Protestants who disapprove is a dramatic 72%.

Also consider that the activism in favor of PAS is often driven by a libertarianism focused on the autonomy of the individual in relation to the state. If this sounds like a conservative argument, that’s because it is.

And much of the activism against PAS is driven by concern for disability rights — a deep skepticism of the idea that more choice leads to authentic freedom, especially for those on the margins of the culture. If this sounds like a progressive argument, that’s because it is.

Indeed, most of the progressive world has made assisted suicide illegal. Forty-one of 44 countries in Europe ban the practice. The United Kingdom faced a campaign to legalize PAS in 2015; it was soundly defeated in Parliament, 330 to 118.

But one of course can reject the libertarian arguments focused on individual autonomy and still be drawn to support legal PAS out of compassion. One would have to be a moral monster, after all, to be unmoved by a request from someone in fear of dying in extreme pain. This kind of compassion has been part of successful attempts to legalize PAS in California and New Jersey.

But the more we learn about what’s generally behind requests for assisted suicide, the more concerned we should be about justice.

In Oregon, for instance, one learns that physical pain doesn’t even make the top five reasons people request PAS. Fear of loss of autonomy and fear of being a burden on others, by contrast, do make the top five.

Can a state consider itself advocating for a progressive, socially just culture if, instead of working to change the reality that those without individual autonomy consider themselves a burden, they make it easier for these marginalized people to end their lives?

This helps explain why progressive states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and New York have so far refused to give in. Many disability rights activists in these states are leading the charge to change an ableist culture which sees the value of life only through the lens of U.S.-style autonomy and productivity.

Pope Francis helpfully locates the impulse to see suicide as a good option for these marginalized populations as part of a broader “throwaway culture” which has disturbing willingness to discard those whose dignity is inconvenient to acknowledge and accommodate.

Racial justice activists, for instance, are beginning to see that the lives of black and brown Americans, given exploitation and racism they’ve faced at the hands of medical community, are powerful examples of throwaway culture. Is it any wonder, that, that there are “vast racial and ethnic difference[s]” in requests for PAS? In Oregon, 97% of requests come from whites. The number is 88% in California — a state in which under 37% identify as non-Hispanic white. Hispanic Californians request PAS physician-assisted suicide at a rate of one-tenth their representation in the state.

Instead of throwing people away, we should create a counter-culture in which the marginalized are encountered, embraced and included in the fullness of who they are.

Let us resist attempts to make the most vulnerable among us easier to discard and instead join the difficult but necessary work of building up a progressive culture of encounter, acceptance, welcome, and inclusion. Especially for the most vulnerable.

Camosy is associate professor of ethics in the theology department at Fordham.

Source: “Against physician-assisted suicide: A new law would feed a throwaway culture“,

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