As medical technology evolves, doctors have been able to utilize new medicines that help to prolong life. At the same time, however, there has been an increase in the desire to end life in a more “peaceful” or “dignified” manner. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) has grown in popularity due to an ideological shift and the personal experiences of numerous individuals. According to The Hastings Center, “Dying patients who see their lives being destroyed by illness sometimes come to view death as the only way to escape their suffering, and therefore view it as a means of self-preservation—the opposite of suicide.”
The original intent of PAS was to alleviate prolonged suffering for individuals with a terminal disease or sickness. Unfortunately, peoples’ ideas of what warrants PAS has become more ambiguous and subjective. It has become clear that there are those who would like PAS to become more accessible to everyone and not just those who are terminally ill. This would imply that individuals who are disabled, handicapped, or have poor quality of life could legally end their lives through PAS.
In The Oregonian, Erin Hoover Barnett tells the story of 85-year-old Kate Cheney with dementia. Cheney’s daughter, Erika, wanted her mother to choose PAS. However, before Cheney was permitted to choose PAS, she saw two psychologists. One found her unequipped to make such a difficult decision. The other found that her decision was heavily influenced by her daughter Erika. Despite these concerns, Cheney was able to choose PAS and died only a week after her last psych evaluation.
There are more stories like Cheney’s, but it can be challenging to learn and analyze the consequences of PAS. Dr. Katrina Hedberg from the Oregon Department of Human Services explains why there is not enough substantial research about PAS: “We are not given the resources to investigate [assisted-suicide cases] and not only do we not have the resources to do it, but we do not have any legal authority to insert ourselves.” Researchers have been unable to gather in-depth information about PAS due to the harsh law restrictions. It is evident that there are several loopholes in the PAS process.
For example, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund says that someone who has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder should be deemed incompetent to make the decision to end his or her life through PAS. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports found that between 2011-2014, “only 3% of patients (or fewer) were referred for psychological evaluation or counseling before receiving their prescriptions for lethal drugs.” This shows that people are not mandated to have a psych evaluation before the prescription of lethal drugs that end their life. Numerous Oregon psychologists have shared that they cannot diagnose someone with major depressive disorder after just one visit. A single appointment cannot determine the mental stability of an individual, especially in regard to that patient choosing PAS.
To ask psychologists to deem a patient mentally competent enough to choose PAS in just one visit is requiring those psychologists to neglect their responsibility to their patients. Psychologists recognize that mental health takes time to diagnose and time to heal. Even the most renowned psychologist cannot make a clear and accurate assessment of a patient in one session.
Death with Dignity, a pro-PAS activist organization, claims that one should end their life, “when the quality of life has decreased to an unacceptable or intolerable level, and all that is left are days of suffering.” This creates a convoluted standard of what it means to have “quality of life.” It is impossible to predict someone’s death. PAS could lead to an unnecessarily premature death. Advocates of PAS are suggesting that quality of life is decided by each individual, with no set standard of quality of life. This means that people can end their lives based on relative standards, decreasing the cultural value on human life and dignity, which creates more issues.
It is important to recognize that there are individuals who are experiencing intense terminal suffering. There is no doubt that many people contemplating PAS are in deep agony and desire relief from that pain. However, physician-assisted suicide should be illegal because the standards for qualifying are vague and are not adequately supervised. Further, even death is not the answer to life’s worst sufferings. The intentional premature killing of those who are terminally ill devalues human life and robs relatives of precious time they could have spent with their dying loved one.
Scripture continually speaks of the inherent value of human life, whether that is of an unborn child or an elderly person. God’s hand is evident in every stage of life. Instead of ending lives, God calls us to celebrate life and trust Him during times of suffering. As Christians, we know that “suffering produces character” (James 1:2-4), and we can hold fast to God’s promise and spread the good news to nonbelievers that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Even in our most desperate times, He is sovereign. In our greatest sufferings, He is with us.
Hayden Sledge is a Coalitions intern at Family Research Council.