The Quest for an Easy Exit

DEBRA J. SAUNDERS

October 26, 1992|By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Future historians may be about to receive a gift from California voters that could enable them to chart just when America declined and turned from a society that values individual responsibility to one in which institutions reign.

If California voters approve Proposition 161, the physician-assisted suicide initiative -- the Field Poll says 68 percent of polled voters support it -- chroniclers of this age will be able to pinpoint the moment America went soft, with California characteristically leading the way.

Proposition 161 would allow mentally competent adults with a terminal illness to kill themselves with the assistance of a physician.

TTC Proponents like to frame the issue in terms of the right to die; this of course implies that people don't have the power to end their lives without a law. You'd think that only doctors can kill people and that there are no guns, no garages, no Golden Gate Bridge.

But of course, such deaths are messy, lonely and scary. So the suicidists want government to make everything right.

Physician-assisted suicide enthusiasts propose to make the ultimate act something that is sanitized, easy and guaranteed painless by shifting the responsibility and detail work to an institution.

If voters approve Proposition 161, it will signal that America has crossed the line to become a society in which committing suicide is something you shouldn't have to do by yourself.

This ballot measure is not about the right to kill yourself; it's about setting up an institution that sloughs off the act to other agents. Not faceless agents, either, but people, even if they do work under the mantle of official sanction.

There's something unsettling about the proponents' obsession with the perfect exit.

Proposition 161 cheerleaders go to great lengths to present a scenario in which a patient is unable to kill herself. But that's disingenuous, because they don't want to limit the measure to people who are not ambulatory.

Although you can see why proponents tell such stories, their biggest appeal is fear.

Some even argue that it would be rude to burden their families with their corpses. They seem to think it's less of an imposition to ask a doctor to kill them than it is to leave the family stuck having to call the morgue.

For the most trivial of reasons, people seem willing to give up the most precious of gifts.

My friend Terry knows this. Her brother Robert is dying of AIDS. A few months ago, the family thought he might soon die or be in need of life support. He was very depressed, as terminal patients often become. If Proposition 161 were in force, Terry says, her brother would have used it.

He would have used it because it was suicide made easy; he would have used it even though he wouldn't and didn't kill himself.

Robert is alive today. He rallied and, as it turned out, he enjoyed the best birthday of his life last month. If Robert had killed himself out of the fear of pain, he never would have shared a special joy with Terry.

Proposition 161 is what happens when fear rules decision-making. Afraid of pain? Afraid to kill yourself? Don't worry. Proposition 161 will make it easy for you to die.

It shows the price some people are willing to pay for the avoidance of pain. In order to guarantee a painless suicide for themselves, proponents are willing to implement a system that very conceivably could create a stigma for patients who choose to duke it out with death.

To avoid what they fear, the death cultists are ready to go like pets. Worse, they want a system that encourages others to go as they go.

Make no mistake about it: This measure isn't about the so-called right to die. And if Californians pass Proposition 161, it would provide ominous proof of how little voters have come to expect of themselves and how much they have come to ask of their institutions.

Debra Saunders is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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