When Suicide Becomes Medical Treatment

In 1997 the state of Oregon legalized physician assisted suicide (PAS), allowing a physician to aid and abet an individual in the unthinkable act of self-murder without fear of criminal prosecution. In many ways this disastrous decision both marked and helped to effect a shift in the thinking of Americans, many of whom increasingly view the elderly and disabled as expendable if they are no longer useful to society.

Since 1997, proponents of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) have found efforts to legalize the practice to be slow going—only Washington State has joined Oregon by declaring suicide a medical treatment in keeping with the needs of patients. In the meantime, however, it appears that society has warmed to PAS, as supporters have manipulated public opinion by employing euphemisms to make it more palatable. Advocates describe PAS in sterile terms such as “self termination” and “self deliverance,” and even apparently laudable terms such as “an act of compassion and mercy,” a “choice for freedom from suffering” and “aid in dying.” Behind this fabricated veil of credibility and compassion, they have won victories in the court of public opinion.

But behind that veil is a reality that cannot be hidden. Once suicide is considered a medical treatment, bureaucratic authorities tasked with keeping health care affordable can deem it the best course of “treatment” for a patient. Consider Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup who were denied life-saving chemotherapy by the Oregon Health Plan, and instead offered suicide as a course of treatment. Ms. Wagner told ABC News, “It was horrible. I got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor, and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won’t give you the medication to live.”

This election season, more states are facing efforts to legalize PAS, including Massachusetts, Vermont, Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and Montana. Of these states, it is in Massachusetts that the battle for life will be most difficult. If PAS proponents succeed in getting pro-suicide legislation on the ballots, Catholics and pro-life voters will need to mobilize and vote for life. Further, citizens of these states should be aware of the position of their local candidates, and should weigh this position heavily when they vote.

On the national scene, end of life care has increasingly become a political, cultural and moral issue. It was front-page news during the debate surrounding healthcare reform, reaching a feverish pitch as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin warned of “death panels” and President Obama personally declared such claims to be “fear-mongering.” Indeed, the Affordable Care Act has given pro-life and Catholic communities many reasons to fear its implementation.

One concern is Ezekiel Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s special advisor for health policy in the the White House Office of Management and Budget. Emanuel has argued that we should treat “65-year-olds differently … because they have already had more life-years.” Emanuel has also stated that, “[S]ervices provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.”

Emanuel’s ideas are at the center of an administration that seems comfortable with limiting patient-physician choice in order to save money.

Rather than empowering patients and physicians to make the best decisions for patient care at the bedside, the Affordable Care Act will restrict choice in the form of the “Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB)”—an unelected bureaucratic entity charged with cost containment in the implementation of the new health care law. President Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of reducing costs because “the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill.” Through IPAB’s cost-containment decisions, “[T]hey’re going to have to give up paying for things that don’t make them healthier,” he noted in a New York Times interview.

National Review’s Stanley Kurtz explains how IPAB will work:

IPAB’s price-setting power gives it control over medical decisions now made by doctors with their patients. And, yes, that means rationing by unaccountable bureaucrats. The one size fits all consequences of IPAB declarations will be final for many an unfortunate patient. In that sense, IPAB will indeed be a death panel.

These developments make clear that what happened to Barbara Wagner will not be an anomaly once ObamaCare is implemented. When we go to the polls this November, healthcare needs of the sick, dying and disabled are of utmost concern. The Culture of Death is creeping once more into the very legal and moral fabric of society through the care we provide these vulnerable communities. We should take heed and vote accordingly.

This article originally appeared at HLI America

Arland K. Nichols


Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We should not conflate the absolute prohibition on deliberate killing of the innocent, with the necessarily qualified positive duty to preserve life.  Moral theologians teach that we are not obliged to use “extraordinary means,” which is a matter of time, place and circumstances.  There is no justification for burdensome treatment that merely prolongs the process of dying.

    It is precisely the consequentialism that bedevils modern ethics that has led to the equation of the two.

    • Cathanon

      That may be a decision with which the medical community has to struggle when caring for an incapacitated patient but not as a matter of bureaucratic policy, for that is a clear path to eugenics.

    • Anichols

      I do not disagree with you Mr. Paterson-Symour, however, I quick question for clarification: Are you suggesting that I have conflated the two? 

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  • Tout

    Please, do not encourage suicide under any form.

  • I prefer the German word for it: Selbstmord — self-murder.

    The problem is exacerbated by an inability to see what is sacred about human life.  That results simultaneously in a frenetic desire to prolong physical life as long as possible, and a weariness with human beings who are not “productive,” to use the horrible industrial word.

    I can’t claim to be free of the fear of death; it’s something that I pray for all the time.  But I remember the day my father died, in his chair, knowing that that would be his last day, fully conscious, with me and my mother and my siblings surrounding him.  He did not want the pointless treatment, since he was dying, and there was no avoiding it.  I pray that I may be granted a death like his.

  • Alecto

    How can the Catholic hierarchy not grasp that its social justice positions naturally result in these outcomes?  The USCCB has often advocated for government-paid healthcare and virtually any policy that denies individual freedom and responsibility.  Yet, increased government interference and control leads to the resource rationing which is the impetus and forms the argument for euthanasia, etc….  I won’t even go into the result of higher taxes which prevent individuals from obtaining the resources necessary to help themselves.  Is it any wonder so many of us free enterprise supporters feel so bitterly towards the Catholic church?  It really is past time for Catholics to revisit its social welfare teaching and honestly ask whether its teaching and support of the government nanny state leads to these problems? 

    I lived in Oregon when PAS was passed.  ‘ll never forget my law professor polling her Trusts & Estates course of 50-60 people regarding support for PAS.  Only 5 or 6 of us opposed it.  When doctors and lawyers collude to actively end life, the very professions dedicated to protecting and defending life and rights, there is little worth saving in a society.  We’re already dead and we don’t know it.  Where was the Catholic church when we were fighting that battle?  Oh, that’s right… advocating for more government goodies!  Where did you people think this would lead?  To the land of unicorns and waterfalls? 

    • Isabel Kilian

      The Catholic teaching on social justice was hi jacked years ago by radical liberal pro abortion, pro death types. They put their liberalism even above their faith. Pope John Paul II tried to correct their seamless garment garbage by teaching there are a hierarchy of values but was met with little success. Try to remember, Jesus was first betrayed by his own!

  • ReadtheCatechism

    Physician-assisted suicide should be outlawed and no one should receive a letter suggesting the state will help pay for them to die. 

    How much medical care a person receives is another matter.  Health care is a scarce resource and like all scarce resources it is rationed.  Right now, people under 65 without health insurance are the ones who don’t get their fair share.  Note that people under 65 routinely get denied life-saving chemotherapy and that is a scandal and a shame on this society.