In the Service of Human Life
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In the Service of Human Life

Dying with Dignity

Do you have a right to die on your terms? It’s a question that many people are asking. Ethicists, physicians, public policy experts, even legislators are debating that right on its merits. This is as much a moral question as it is a legal one.

The law is more than bipolar on when ending someone’s life is acceptable. You individually cannot murder anyone, with or without cause. But you can in cases of self-defense. A physician or a mother may kill a child in development up to a certain gestational age. A physician who overprescribes medication can be charged with murder. The State can execute a convicted criminal who has committed a certain offenses. These distortions illustrate why we can’t be confident in relying upon law alone as our moral and ethical guide. The law seeks to do what is just, ethics seeks to do what is right.

The public debate over euthanasia is couched around the idea of “dying with dignity.” Proponents want you to think that the limits that they place in law today are sufficient to protect the rights of the individual and the patient. These limits may require a waiting period, a certain negative prognosis, or multiple consultations before the fatal prescription is written. They hold that there is a right to die on your own terms and that it’s going to be used in so few cases that we shouldn’t spend much time dwelling on the underlying ethics. Safe, legal, and rare. Sound familiar?

It’s a clever argument to frame euthanasia as a personal and dignified choice for the patient to make, even though in reality it destroys the dignity of the human person. Legalizing euthanasia implicitly means that there are some people whose lives have no meaning or worth. They’re disposable and they will not be missed. We’d rather they be dead than alive.

The proposed guidelines, even those enacted in law, are open-ended. Any law or policy is subject to shifting public policy and opinion over time. Medicine is an imprecise science, and so even to restrict euthanasia to the terminally ill leaves room for error. It’s that same margin for error that gives credence to the argument to end the death penalty. Death is a permanent state. Just as many death row convicts are exonerated through new evidence each year, terminally ill patients are sometimes given an improper diagnosis, respond positively to experimental treatments, or beat the time estimates placed on their lives.

In reality, legalizing euthanasia is a Trojan horse designed to codify a perversion of a truly dignified death. Once enshrined in law, outlawing the practice would be considerably more difficult.

We all share a desire to die peacefully, and many of us approach our own mortality with fear. We fear the unknown and we let that fear cause us to act irrationally. You have a right to die of natural causes, not a right to take your own life at a time and in the method of your choosing. Every person possesses an inherent dignity that is totally separate from any utility that they may provide to their family, community, or society writ large.

An authentically dignified death is one in which the person is loved and respected. It’s when all ordinary means of care are exhausted, and a patient is given comfort care until their natural death. A dignified death is one in which the patient knows that they have worth because of who they are, not because of what they offer. A dignified death protects the patient in their weakest moments, allowing no harm to come to them. A dignified death is one of natural causes, not direct intervention.

The end of ones life can be filled with considerable pain and suffering. It can also come without warning or in a period of great bliss and joy in their lives. Regardless of the circumstances surround one’s death, you have the right to die with authentic dignity, of natural causes, and not a moment sooner.