The Good Fight: On Euthanasia Proposals
Jordan, Patrick, Commonweal
Before joining Commonweal, I worked for a number of years on the staff of a nursing care facility for terminal cancer patients. Saint Rose's Home overlooks the East River on Jackson Street in Lower Manhattan. It was rounded in the late 1890s by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and it continues today thanks to the efforts of the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters and their co-workers.
During my time at Saint Rose's, death was no stranger. I saw hundreds of people die, victims of every variety of cancer in every conceivable and disastrous manifestation. Not all died the death Catholics traditionally pray for: a graceful or happy death. That is, after all, largely a psychospiritual gift that cannot be leveraged, even by one's certifiable merits. Yet with very few exceptions, each of these men, women, and children died a good death: relatively comfortable and pain-free, if not always at the expected or desired moment. Even in a hospice setting, death has the final word and arrives sometimes as a thief.
It is death's habit of arriving stealthily, unpredictably--like the phantom caller in Muriel Spark's Momento Mori---coupled with our fear of pain, loss of bodily integrity, and the unknown, that, in part, lends strength to the present movement for legalized euthanasia in the United States. That's why such referenda are not going to disappear any time soon.
Just two days after the defeat of California's euthanasia Proposition 161 on November 3, the New England Journal of Medicine published two opinion pieces by respected doctors at prestigious medical schools advocating physician-assisted suicide. And next year alone, there will be legislative efforts to iegalize euthanasia in a number of states, including New Hampshire, Maine, and Michigan. In each, the stakes are very high. "If one state legalizes these practices [medically assisted suicide], we will see other states adopting similar legislation in a relatively short time," predicts Ron P. HameI, a senior associate at the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics (see the center's newsletter, The CenterLine, Fall 1992).
Fortunately, when it comes to euthanasia, American voters seem to be more than simple pragmatists looking for an allpurpose silver bullet. We may have justifiable fears about prolonged, painful, and seemingly purposeless suffering at life's end, but we also have realistic doubts about the final exit enthusiasts. And that's why--at least until now--physician-assisted suicide legislation has failed, even though in poll after poll over the past forty years, a majority of Americans have said they favor such legalization.
In the past two years, major euthanasia propositions--in the generally liberal states of Washington and California--although initially heavily favored to win, both met defeat. In September 1992, a Los Angeles Times poll on California Proposition 161, for instance, found that over 60 percent of those queried favored physician-assisted suicide. …