Why New York Should Oppose Physician-Assisted Suicide

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By Dr. Paul Sansone

As another legislative session begins, I would like to voice firm opposition to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide (PAS). As a physician practicing hospice and palliative medicine in New York state, and previously in New Hampshire and Vermont, I speak with confidence that PAS should remain illegal for the betterment of all citizens.

Death and dying is a sacred journey. In offering their presence and support, family and friends unite with their dying loved one and share in the process. Bonds of love are expanded. The hurts of past relationships become open to healing and reconciliation. People of faith have the opportunity for meaningful spiritual preparation for death.

Proponents have cleverly used language as an effective tool in garnering support for PAS, employing phrases such as “medical aid in dying” and “death with dignity.” Such terms are designed to assuage moral anxieties and convey an aura of peace and serenity. My experience in Vermont, where PAS is legal, speaks otherwise. For those who follow through with taking their own lives, this aspect of a unifying and communal experience of death is disrupted.

Advocates of PAS have also attempted to reassure us about the safeguards for this practice, claiming that only those with a terminal illness and can make the decision with complete autonomy would be eligible. Also, PAS supporters contend that this will not lead to the legalization of euthanasia. Experience elsewhere argues against such false promises of reassurance. In Canada and many countries in Europe, where PAS was approved in a similarly limited way, the restrictions on who can access it and the safeguards in place to prevent elder abuse have been gradually lifted. In many of those places, the elderly, those with dementia, developmental disabilities and people experiencing depression can all be candidates for this form of “treatment.”

In my experience, the effects of legalizing PAS extend beyond the strictly lawful aspects by permeating society with a subtle and pervasive attitude that erodes of the value of human life.

The mentality that takes root challenges the traditional belief in the inherent dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of our Creator, and fashioned in an intimate and inseparable unity of body and soul.

The death-on-demand approach dismisses the truth of the inherent dignity of the human person, regardless of one’s physical and psychological capacity, and replaces it with the concept of efficiency, functionality and usefulness. A person is no longer viewed for simply who they are, but for what they have, can do and produce. There arises an overemphasis on “quality of life” and productive efficiency; the lives of the impaired are increasingly looked upon as having no value. The message for the most vulnerable populations, especially the elderly, those with dementia and persons with disabilities, is that theirs is a life no longer worth living.

Another argument frequently proposed by advocates of PAS is the avoidance of intolerable pain and suffering. As a physician in palliative medicine, I can confidently attest to the ability to markedly reduce physical pain and suffering in almost all situations. If someone is experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, then the issue is a lack of access to adequate palliative and hospice care, and not the inability to get relief.

The truth about why people go through with PAS where it is legal is, in fact, not at all related to avoiding profound pain and suffering. It is, in reality, all about exercising personal autonomy. The data from Oregon, where PAS has been legal for over 20 years, show clearly that the overwhelming reason people seek to end their lives by PAS is related to autonomy (91% of the time), and declining ability to engage in enjoyable activities (90%). Much less common is intolerable suffering, or fear of future suffering (27%).

The exercise of personal autonomy regarding choices in health care is obviously very important; I welcome and support the practice of people having more choice regarding their health care. That said, there is a limit to personal autonomy. The concept that a person has the right to end his life by ingestion of a lethal dose of medication is absurd, and violates the fundamental precepts of the natural moral law. Among these are upholding the dignity of every human person, showing respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and promotion of the common good for all.

Just like people, states have the right to make bad decisions. New York need not be one of them. Do not allow physician-assisted suicide to become legal in our state. I strongly encourage the leadership and citizens of the Empire State to continue with the sound moral judgement and guidance that provides the foundation for authentic freedom and flourishing for all people.

Dr. Paul Sansone, of Syracuse, practices Palliative Medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.

Source: “Why New York should oppose physician-assisted suicide (Guest Opinion by Dr. Paul Sansone)”, Syracuse.com

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