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

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