Physician-assisted suicide and the slippery slope


By Rabbi Stephen Baars

Current proposed legislation in the Maryland House of Delegates would legalize suicide for the terminally ill. The legislation would enable doctors to prescribe suicide pills to terminally ill patients. This legislation is different from allowing patients palliative care to stay comfortable during their dying days or allowing a very ill person to sign a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order. Palliative care and DNRs already exist. The new legislation would legalize self-administered drugs designed to kill.

The concept in the bill has failed to become law year after year. But last year, it failed by only one vote.

Many people, including me, think, “Who am I to tell a poor soul suffering a terminal disease what they should do?” And that is a true and fair concern, as we cannot judge anyone, we cannot judge others’ pain. No one knows what anyone else is going through, so no one can tell anyone that it’s not so bad.

An outsider might view suicide for terminally ill as inherently different than other forms of suicide. But from the point of view of someone suffering from depression, the reasoning that justifies assisted suicide also applies to them.

The proposed legislation may limit assisted suicide to the terminally ill. But the message is contagious. What is intended for a grandmother will impact her teen granddaughter, whether she wants it to or not.

If enacted, this legislation will impact every person struggling with depression. It will impact people with disabilities. It will send a personal message: If you’re hurting, suicide is an acceptable way to end the pain. It also sends a social message: People who require resources are a burden, and our society doesn’t care if they disappear. The action of legalization speaks louder than any words to the contrary.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, now has the second-highest rate of suicide in the United States, 41 percent above the national rate. In 2017, Oregon had twice the suicide rate of Maryland.

Legalized assisted suicide in Oregon has created a pervasive culture: Every age group in Oregon has higher suicide rates than the rest of the United States.

Since legalization, between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among men and women aged 34 to 65 spiked nearly 50 percent in Oregon, compared to 28 percent nationally. As of 2015, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in Oregon for people ages 10 to 24.

Proponents have claimed that legalizing assisted suicide lowers other suicide rates. But a landmark statistical analysis published in the Southern Medical Journal in 2015 showed no decrease in non-assisted suicides in states that legalized physician-assisted suicide.

Instead, the paper demonstrated that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide is associated with an 8.9 percent increase in total suicide rates in those states.

The District of Columbia already passed an assisted-suicide bill, but it’s too early to see its long-term effects. If it is not overturned, no one should be surprised if suicide rates increase.

Who do we lose when suicide rates increase? Vulnerable people who deserve mental health resources and community support, friendship and love. Not a death sentence.

There are no simple solutions for people suffering from terminal illness. There are also no simple solutions for helping people struggling with depression or disability.

Despite the inherent challenges, our community and our society are obligated to do whatever we can to create compassionate resources and support to help vulnerable people. Not because we feel pity, but because we value each person. We can work together to solve problems. But legalizing assisted suicide is the wrong solution.

Rabbi Stephen Baars is executive director of Aish Seminars and the author of “WIN: change your thinking, change your destiny.” He lives in Washington.

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