8
Selling Death and Dignity

Herbert Hendin

Advocates use case descriptions to show that euthanasia or
assisted suicide is sometimes justifiable. Yet even the
seemingly clearest cases can prove deeply troubling.

Dying is hard to market. Voters, many repelled by the image of doctors giving their patients lethal injections, rejected euthanasia initiatives in Washington and California. Learning from these defeats, Oregon sponsors of a similar measure limited it to assisted suicide, while still casting the patient in the role familiar from euthanasia advertising: the noble individualist fighting to exercise the right to die.

Although both assisted suicide and euthanasia have been presented as empowering patients by giving them control over their death, assisted suicide has been seen as protecting against potential medical abuse since the final act is in the patient's hands. Yet opponents see little protection in assisted suicide: people who are helpless or seriously ill are vulnerable to influence or coercion by physicians or relatives who can achieve the same ends with or without direct action.' How could advocates counteract not only images of lethal physicians but images of grasping relatives, eager to be rid of a burden or to gain an inheritance by coercing death?

Supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia have found the ultimate marketing technique to promote the normalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia: the presentation of a case history designed to show how necessary assisted suicide or euthanasia was in that particular instance. Such cases may rely either on nightmarish images of unnecessarily prolonged dying or on predictions of severe disability. The instance in which it is felt that most would agree it was desirable to end life is represented as typical. Those who participate in the death (the relatives, the euthanasia advocates, the physician) are celebrated as enhancing the dignity of the patient, who is usually presented as a heroic, fully independent figure.

____________________
From the Hastings Center Report 25, no. 3 ( 1995): 19-23. © Herbert Hendin. Reprinted by permission. Reprint by permission of the Hastings Center and Herbert Hendin, M.D., Director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College.

-87-

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