Lives That Don’t Matter

At a time when “Black Lives Matter” has become a highly effective slogan, it is ironic that, in heavily African-American Washington, D.C., the City Council is taking up the question of doctor-assisted suicide.

The contradiction was palpable in a candid news story the Washington Post published recently on citizen reactions, which tended to regard the measure as aimed at “old black people.” In contrast to the sunny tone of the Post’s own editorial on the subject, the District’s residents were not slow to voice their darker suspicions. Intuitively, they knew that the option of assisted suicide, once opened, would not be easily contained within the limits of an ostensibly free choice.

Pressures, some subtle and some not so subtle, would inevitably be brought to bear. No amount of legal reassurance could remove the suspicion that the suicide option would become a means of removing the most powerless, most marginal, members of the community.

As with so many paternalistic initiatives, it is not necessary to ascribe a nefarious purpose to the people seeking to advance this measure. Harm can be done without anyone intending it. This is particularly the case when the intention is the compassionate relief of suffering for the terminally ill.

The damage that medically induced suicide causes lies, not in the tendency for it to be misused or to poison the doctor-patient relationship, but in the very concept itself. Without anyone being euthanized, the state or, in this case, the District, has already declared that some lives do not matter.

Once the suffering or the burden has become sufficient, they and their doctors are authorized to do away with themselves. Medical professionals who are on the front line of this encounter sense the abyss that then opens up.

But it is the same for all of us who are relatives, friends, and fellow citizens. Can we judge, as we must if we agree with the patient’s request, that his or her life is no longer worth living?

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It is especially when we believe that we are acting out of the noblest of motives that those motives must be scrutinized most closely. Could it be that helping another conceals a diminished reverence for the other? This is not to suggest the inevitability of a slippery slope that expands assisted suicide from the terminally ill to the merely infirm. It is only to note the devaluation that has already occurred when we presume to judge the value of a life.

Even if the terminally ill patient is inclined to regard life as no longer worth living, we cannot simply take their dejection as conclusive. Our responsibility is to affirm that, even in its last days, such a life has become even more precious to us.

Death is not the end of life, but the moment in which it is held most deeply. A whole lifetime can be intimated in the squeeze of a hand. Even in death we are connected. That is why we cannot simply accept death as the end of the person, for the dying have spoken to us from beyond the boundary that encloses them.

It is only by following out the logic of euthanasia that we begin to see the source of the entanglements in which we have been caught. Thinking we act out of compassion we have assisted in the execution of the person. But then we have annihilated the one we intended to serve.

Suicide can never be a medically indicated treatment since all treatments presuppose the existence of a patient to be served. The practice of medicine undergoes a strange distortion if it includes the elimination of its patients.

In a similar way, the political community has a primary obligation to guard the life, liberty, and happiness of its members. It cannot simply declare they would be best served by terminating their lives.

That is why we cannot install a “right to die” within our constitutional scheme. Care for the dying cannot include the deliberate imposition of death. When Mother Teresa went out into the streets of Calcutta to carry home the dying, it was never to hasten their demise. On the contrary, it was to lavish as much love as possible on them in their final days and hours.

We cannot say, “you are of inexhaustible value,” and in hastening death, declare “your value has been exhausted.”

Just as compassion cannot include the abolition of the other, liberty cannot include the elimination of the life that is its own condition. We cannot sell ourselves into slavery because it is literally impossible. In the same way, we cannot regard the destruction of our liberty as a legitimate exercise of liberty.

In judging that a certain kind of life no longer matters, we have cast a pall on all human life. Now, every life has become susceptible to evaluation and therefore to that negotiation in which the strong are almost always victorious.

The danger in admitting doctor-assisted suicide is not that a few individuals may be mistakenly dispatched before their time, but that we have displaced the primacy of the right to life within our entire political self-understanding.

If life is no longer absolute, then none of our rights are impregnable. Instead of seeing every human life as priceless, we have now put a price on each of them.

David Walsh

David Walsh

David Walsh, a new contributor, is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author, among many other books, of Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being.

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