By Kathleen M. Gallagher
Since California legalized physician-assisted suicide late last year, the proponents of such laws have set their sights on New York, with paid lobbyists, consultants and public relations firms endlessly recounting the story of Brittany Maynard.
You may recall that Ms. Maynard was the young newlywed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s life-ending law. Ms. Maynard’s husband has already been to Albany to push for such a law here, and he’s promising return visits.
But is the young, adventurous, happily married Brittany Maynard the true face of assisted suicide?
It turns out that no, she is not.
The 2015 data from Oregon, the first state to allow assisted suicide, is now available, and it paints a frighteningly different picture of just who is actually accessing the suicide law. The majority of patients are elderly, have no health insurance or rely on government insurance, are isolated and alone and are rarely, if ever, evaluated for clinical depression. The majority request suicide drugs for reasons that have nothing to do with physical pain or suffering: decreasing ability to participate in enjoyable activities, fear of losing autonomy and fear of losing dignity.
These are the people who are most at risk of abuse, coercion and undue pressure to kill themselves.
That’s why it troubles me so much when advocates for assisted suicide trumpet the term “choice” and assert that patients near the end of life should have the “freedom to choose” how and when they die. This isn’t even remotely about free choice.
“Choice” rings hollow when pressures come from family members who increasingly see their financial resources being drained and their loved ones as burdens; when health insurance companies will pay for a lethal dose of drugs, but deny a claim for expensive chemotherapy treatments; when health providers subtly make judgment calls about whose lives are worth living and whose are not; and when the mechanisms of our very government sanction and assist in death-making.
Choice is an illusion, a marketing tool, a brand.
It troubles me even more that lawmakers are considering this radical change in our law without seriously contemplating what we can do – and should do – for those who are terminally ill and fearing death.
Is helping to cause their death the most we can offer them? Can’t we do more to remove the barriers preventing patients from accessing quality hospice programs?
Can’t we train more medical professionals in palliative care and pain management? Can’t we provide the comfort and compassion and companionship that will allow people to die a natural death with true dignity?
I happened to hear former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco speaking about this issue on a radio program. Vacco is the man who defended New York’s law prohibiting assisted suicide all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1997. He was talking about that very law when he said:
“We need the statute exactly where it is for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are warehoused in assisted living facilities, whose families never come to see them, who are suffering from depression, and maybe not mentally competent; that’s why this law needs to stay exactly where it is. Not for the Brittany Maynards, but for all those unnamed people who are potential victims.”
The case of Brittany Maynard should not obscure the ethical and medical minefield that is physician-assisted suicide.
Kathleen M. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.