Dignity & the End of Life: How Not to Talk about Assisted Suicide

By Kaveny, Cathleen | Commonweal, July 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Dignity & the End of Life: How Not to Talk about Assisted Suicide


Kaveny, Cathleen, Commonweal


Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia have long been the redheaded stepchildren of the prolife movement. They are dutifully included in the litany of life-related issues, yet they have not attracted the sustained attention--or passion--that has characterized the struggle against abortion. That may be about to change.

In May 2011, Gallup named PAS the most divisive moral issue in American life. According to their "Values and Beliefs" poll, 45 percent of the population now think it is morally acceptable, while 48 percent believe it to be morally wrong. In June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its first full statement on PAS, "To Live Each Day with Dignity."

Catholic culture warriors also seem to be girding themselves for battle on end-of-life issues. In a recent column in Crisis, Catholic media commentator Barbara Nicolosi writes, "We need an emotionally winning language for this fight. The other side should not get away with christening themselves 'mercy killers'; they are 'death dealers,' 'elder abortionists,' 'needlers'" She urges pro-lifers to invoke the Nazis, who started a secret euthanasia program.

While well-intentioned, Nicolosi's strategy is mistaken. The best way to promote human dignity at the end of life isn't to clone the culture war over abortion. PAS raises very different questions of law and public policy. It also plays on very different human emotions, which shape our response to the legal frameworks of the two issues.

Abortion is now a constitutionally protected choice. Assisted suicide is not. In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution leaves the matter of assisted suicide to the states to decide. In the past fourteen years, only three states have legalized the procedure (Washington, Oregon, and Montana). On abortion, prolifers are fighting a judicially imposed status quo. In contrast, in most states, the status quo favors those opposed to PAS and euthanasia. In fact, a review of older Gallup polls shows that opposition to assisted dying has actually grown over the past decade. In this context, a scorched-earth culture-war approach may prove to be overkill, so to speak.

Abortion kills the unborn without their consent, depriving them of their entire future. It evokes in its opponents the desire to protest injustice and to protect the innocent against unwarranted harm. In contrast, to stave off suffering among the terminally ill in the last weeks or month of their lives, PAS allows them to kill themselves with medicine provided by a physician. …

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