Assisted Suicide: The Wind in their Sails

Original Article

Between 1994 and last Tuesday, the assisted-suicide movement in this country was moribund. After Oregon passed Measure 16 (the Death with Dignity Act) in 1994 and saw it go into effect in 1997 – despite widespread expectations, myriad state legislative efforts, and two voter referenda (Michigan and Maine) – no other state swallowed the hemlock.

Frustrated advocates adopted an “Oregon-plus-one” strategy, believing that if only a second state legalized assisted suicide, it would put the winds back into their sails. That theory is about to be tested. Boosted by a multi-million dollar campaign budget that swamped the opposition -most coming from out of state, some even from out of the country – fronted by a popular former governor who also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the cause, and cheered on by a media all but unanimously in favor of “death with dignity,” Washington State became the “plus one” on November 4, 2008 when Initiative 1000 cruised to a 58 – 42 victory.

And with that success, the sails of the ghost ship Euthanasia rippled with the briskly rising breeze, and once again began to plow through the waves toward other shores, far and near. Soon, legislation will be introduced to legalize assisted suicide in state throughout the country -California, Vermont, Arizona, Wisconsin, Hawaii, perhaps Ohio, and others – to make it Oregon-plus – two, -three, -four, and -five.

The victory will also be used to further the euthanasia cause internationally. Every time a legal sovereignty says yes to mercy killing, it grants permission for others to do the same. Thus, expect I-1000’s passage to boost the cause in countries such as Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand – to name just a few – all of which have been edging ever closer in recent years to joining the Netherlands and Belgium in permitting euthanasia, and Switzerland, which allows assisted suicide by lay facilitators.

Beyond the politics of the thing, the passage of I-1000 begs a far more fundamental question: Why now, when for the first time in human history the pain and discomforting symptoms of serious illness can be substantially alleviated, do so many find mercy killing and suicide so appealing? Think of it as a symptom rather than a cause. The euthanasia movement reflects a profound nihilism that has been spreading like a cancer throughout the West for the past hundred years.

The extent of our societal illness was described succinctly several years ago by the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne. Writing in the wake of widespread public support for Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer who murdered his twelve-year-old daughter Tracy because she was disabled by cerebral palsy, Coyne wrote: “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.”

Ponder three recent stories out of the United Kingdom, which seem to validate Coyne’s premise. The first story involved a mentally ill woman named Kerrie Wooltorton, who had repeatedly attempted to kill herself by swallowing antifreeze. On her last attempt, she called an ambulance – but when she was wheeled in to the ER, Wooltorton was clutching a “living will” in which she declined to be saved. That note morally paralyzed the medical team. Queries were made, consultations held – and the decision made to let her die. The physician who could have saved her life later told an inquest: “It’s a horrible thing to have to do but I felt I had no alternative but to go with her wishes.”

Then, there is “suicide tourism” – think Jack Kevorkian on the international stage – in which hundreds of people have flown from their own countries to Switzerland for assisted suicides at the hands of death facilitating organizations. One of the most recent cases involves a young man named Daniel James who was taken to Switzerland by his parents for an assisted suicide after the young man was paralyzed in a rugby accident and became despondently suicidal. The grieving parents are unapologetic and the case has become a cause célèbre for legalizing assisted suicide in the UK. After all, why should such things have to be done overseas? The idea of suicide prevention seems not to come up much in the discussion.

Meanwhile, the agenda is also being furthered by a woman named Debbie Purdy. Purdy has progressive multiple sclerosis and wants her husband to be able to take her to Switzerland for assisted suicide so that she can choose to die without legal consequence. Boosted by the James case, Purdy has garnered much media support.

Thus, the Times of London columnist Libby Purves wrote:

“Debbie Purdy has an incurable degenerative disease and all she wants is permission to shorten the last painful months. Knowing there is an escape route might be so comforting that you never use it. Many terminally ill people willingly live each day, particularly if they get palliative care and comfort from the hospice movement rather than suffering in a stressed, overlit general hospital. But the law on Swiss-bound helpers must be clarified. Dignitas [a Swiss assisted-suicide organization] will not be un-invented.”

Of course, James wasn’t, and Purdy isn’t, terminally ill. So we see the slippery slope slip-sliding away even within Purves’ own column.

Doctors’ letting Wooltorton die, James’ parents taking him to Switzerland to die, Purdy’s lawsuit agreed upon by her husband, and suicide-supportive columns like Purves’ are unquestionably intended to be kind; but they are not. With such deaths emotively and sympathetically reported in the media, and with every lawsuit that chinks away at the laws intended to protect people with serious difficulties from suicide, mercy killing becomes more easily envisioned, more comfortably embraced.

By passing I-1000, Washington voters added dry kindling to this smoldering fire. If more of us don’t man the hoses soon, we risk being consumed by the flames.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.