By William F.B. O’Reilly
A bill kicking around the State Legislature for the past several years is gathering a head of steam in the final weeks of the session.
It would expressly allow physician-assisted suicides in New York for the first time. If the legislation becomes law, New York would join 10 other states in permitting a practice that never would have been seriously considered a couple of decades ago, neither by doctors nor patient advocates.
To the medical community it would have been viewed as a violation of the Hippocratic Oath, which famously states, “I will do no harm…” To others, the very idea would have been anathema in a society that ostensibly values life.
How times have changed.
Arguments in favor of the The New York Medical Aid in Dying Act, sponsored by Assemb. Amy Paulin of Westchester and State Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island, come easily in a libertarian sense:
It’s my life; my body and my choice, the narrative goes. Why should I suffer when my end is near? Why should my life savings be sucked dry by medical interventions when I’m going to die anyway?
All fair points. But there’s more to the issue when one truly thinks it through. New York legislators would be wise to cast their votes cautiously.
Precedence is concern number one. If we allow physician-assisted suicides — if we leap that great ethical divide — the practice in time will become normalized. And once it becomes normalized it will become expected. If that sounds like a stretch, consider what happened with legalized abortions beginning in the early 1970’s. How long did it take for the “are-we-going-to-keep-the-baby?” conversations to become normalized? Not very. Once it’s an option it’s an option.
As assisted suicide becomes regularized, some of those suffering from terrible maladies might understandably feel pressure, implicit or explicit, to choose an early death for the financial and emotional benefit of loved ones. Those decisions would probably come earlier and earlier over time. That’s where things really get tricky sociologically.
A few years ago, I got to know an amazing former marine named J.J. Hanson who developed Grade 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme at age 33, shortly after returning home from the Iraq War.
He was told by doctor after doctor that he had no medical hope of surviving past six months. His diagnosis coincided with the highly publized assisted suicide of 29-year old Brittney Maynard, who suffered from the same disease. Hanson said he felt expected to give up, not by his family but by the medical community.
He decided instead to fight, in part for other people, and eventually got included in a clinical trial which gave him three extra years of life, during which he and his wife, Kris, had a second son. Hanson considered it his duty to fight on as long as he could to show the world that progress can be made on diseases considered incurable. He rightly feared that assisted suicide would inhibit medical research on rare, intractable diseases.
Another issue is the insurance companies which constantly struggle to control costs. The U.S. Conference of Cathlic Bishops noted that in California and Oregon, states that allow physician assisted suicides, some patients were recently told by insurers that assisted suicide would be covered while possible lifesaving treatments wouldn’t be. Appeals take time; insurers know that, and many low-income patients may not have the means to fight Big Insurance.
This is not a new issue. We’ve been debating it for decades, ever since Dr. Jack Kevorkian began helping patients end their lives in the 1990s. The issue is no less excruciating today. What can seem so right in individual cases can seem so wrong as broad policy.
Source: “Medically assisted suicide is a slippery slope,” Newsday.com