The culture of death

April 24, 1996|By Peter J. Riga

HOUSTON -- Two federal courts of appeal and the state of Oregon have given their approval to physician-assisted suicide. As in Roe v. Wade, the federal courts are circumventing democracy and imposing change in our culture by discovering a hitherto unimagined right in the Constitution: the right to kill oneself with the help of medical doctors. The AMA is now rethinking its policy of rejecting such assistance, which means it will soon approve it.

We should pay close attention to what has happened in the Netherlands. The medical profession there established rigid guidelines for the administration of death: The disease must be terminal; the patient must request it several times; the patient must request it in writing before two independent witnesses; there must be an independent evaluation of the medical competence by a psychiatrist.

Still, the Dutch Royal Commission admitted this year, almost a third of the euthanasias performed by doctors were done without the consent of the patient. In addition, euthanasia in Holland has been extended to sick children with parental consent -- infanticide -- and to otherwise healthy persons who requested death because of mental suffering. There is no end to the culture of death.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have emphasized cure and care of the ill, the incurable, the dying. Teaching that man is made in the image of God, they reject all killing, except in self-defense. We may reject particular treatments as useless or burdensome to a patient, but we are forbidden to kill.

The distinction between letting die -- not prolonging dying -- and intentional killing is paramount. This distinction is the line between compassion and murder.

Yet the 2nd Circuit Court compared, and declared comparable, ministering lethal medication to kill a patient. If the court honestly cannot see the difference between compassion and killing, there can be no real dialogue on the subject of euthanasia.

The right to life inheres in the human person. The state does not grant this or any other rights; it only respects them. The Declaration of Independence says that the right to life is ''unalienable;'' how, then, can the state authorize another person to take someone's life? No individual right to self-slaughter has been recognized. By these decisions, we deny our own constitutional origins.

Life is itself worthwhile; it may not be sold or bartered or given over to another. It is profoundly dehumanizing to dispose of life, even with the permission of the patient. We would not allow slavery, even with the slave's permission, because we know that he is not a thing but a person, that is, matter and spirit. To give LTC one's life over to another is to become a thing.

The physician's essence

Finally, euthanasia compromises the physician's essence as a healer, not a killer. While ancient societies (except Israel) practiced private euthanasia, no society permitted its doctors to privately kill. These societies severely restricted the agents of death: those acting in self-defense, soldiers under orders of the state, the state itself in capital punishment. These societies never confused the roles of healer and executioner.

It was precisely because the doctor in his ministrations was dealing with matters of life and death that ancient societies forbade him absolutely from killing. The doctor was always seen as image of hope, no matter how slim. When hope of cure was gone, he was seen as comforter. Now the doctor will be a bringer of despair. For 2,500 years, societies have been trying to restrict the range of els, lynchings, clan feuds, wars, honor killing. Now we have taken a step back. Killing is a contagious disease not easily stopped once sanctioned.

To stop useless and burdensome treatments that prolong dying is compassion; we must let the dying die. But we must never intend to kill the sick, disabled or dying. This is false compassion, an excuse for murder and objectification of the human person.

The distinction was breached by Roe v. Wade, the abortion case. As a society we gave the benefit of the unborn child's humanity to its mother and her doctor -- by ''right'' -- to a doctor. What was born with abortion rights has reached its maturity in the right to die. From origins to demise, death rules.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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