The following letter was written by Philip Lintilac and published in the comment section of the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 2013. The legislature in Vermont has been debating the legalization of assisted suicide nearly every year since 2007. Governor Peter Shumlin is a long-time supporter of assisted suicide and has stated that he will legalize assisted suicide. So far, every year the assisted suicide bill has been defeated and every year it has returned.
Dear Gov. Shumlin,
I am an 85-year-old Democrat who applauded your election and has approved of all you have done. However, I must question your reported support for the bill before the Legislature now on assisted suicide. This has been touted as solely a matter of individual rights, but it is a matter of grave concern for the whole community.
Passage of this bill will produce the occasion for the ultimate abuse of the elderly, targeting the old dependent and perhaps ailing and depressed who during these hard times can be easily persuaded that they are a burden on their families and have a duty to release them. Indeed many elderly already feel like this.
With such wide ignorance of the hospice programs, which are the real answer to the problem of end-of-life care, and the number still of doctors untutored in palliative medicine, there can still be unnecessary suffering of the sick elderly, but the right action is to rectify these lacks, not to kill off the victims. Some studies have found that so-called mercy killings happen more to relieve the suffering of onlookers, not the patients themselves.
Sir, think again -- which is the better way to serve the community as well as to show compassion?
The medical society has already expressed its disapproval of this bill, knowing it will seriously affect the public image of doctors from healers to death-dealers. The young are already too prone to commit suicide when things get tough -- they do not need the way out modeled for them by the supposed wiser.
If assisted suicide becomes more common will society relax its expensive efforts to find cures to deal better with chronic and end-of-life diseases and the social problems caused by them. Let’s face it -- the more assisted suicide becomes acceptable to the community, the more the temptation will be to encourage the practice for social convenience and economic need as climate changes cause water and food shortages and high cost medical care continues to take a greater share of the nation’s financial resources. We could go the path already taken by the Dutch -- not just the dying elderly with their consent, but the young with chronic diseases and finally people without their consent are receivers of assisted suicide.
Finally, I believe that no doctor with integrity can say with certainty that a person has only six months to live -- there have been remissions and new treatment which have allowed some people to live on for years and I believe in hope as an ingredient of healing and on erring on the side of life.
Treating death as sacred
The debate surrounding death with dignity, or physician-assisted suicide, is understandably polarized; but I think it misses a very significant point, which is the problem of the sacredness of life and of death. We hear the issue framed in terms of those who assert that life is sacred, and that any other position must be profane by definition. But if life is sacred then isn’t death also sacred? Surely this most profound and inevitable transition should be sacred too.
Most religions regard death as sacred in some sense, and provide a means for the dying and the families of the dying to come to terms with the passing of life in ways that are meaningful to them. How can we deny individuals and their families the right to respect this final transition in a way that allows them to control the content and meaning of the end of life? Where is the humanity in demanding that any conscious effort to control the circumstances of death is equivalent to suicide or murder? What is profane about the end of life?
Palliative care services are essential and if thoughtfully administered can do a lot to relieve suffering, but even the most well-meaning hospice care has its limits and can reach the point where we have to face the prospect of being drugged until we can no longer eat and then dying of starvation. I have seen this and it is not sacred. It is isolating and it is humiliating. It denies the dying the privilege of spending their last hours in conscious communion with those who have meant the most to them, and sharing together the recognition of a life well spent and happily ended.
Death is not profane by definition. It is a biological inevitability that under the best of circumstances we would all want to approach without fear. I want to be able to reach out to those I love when my time comes and die with my boots on. I count that as sacred.