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Staying to the End: Why to Say No to Assisted Suicide

Have you ever turned off a TV show, walked out of a movie, not finished a book, abandoned an article in a magazine or newspaper? Perhaps it made no sense to you; or it was too long with too many plot twists. Maybe it stirred difficult memories or feelings, or simply failed to engage you. Leaving the story early means we do not know what we have missed, often the most important part that would tie the rest together.

In the virtual world of entertainment and relationships, we are used to a measure of control – to click or not to click, that has become the question. All of us have days when we wish we could just change the channel, or pause, or rewind and run it again.

Life is not that way. Each chapter, lived in sequence and through to the credits, has value, purpose, and lessons to teach.

This session of the Minnesota Legislature has recently seen the return of the issue of assisted suicide. Introduced repeatedly, it has long failed to garner support. Today’s political and cultural climate raises the concern that Minnesota could soon join the ten states and D.C. in legalizing the practice.

There are many reasons to reject legalizing assisted suicide, each of them grounded in sound social policy and long human experience.

Assisted suicide undermines the value and dignity of life. Its legalization, though claimed to be only for those with terminal illness, also exposes those who live with significant disabilities or those who already lack social support to the slippery slope that could move from a “right to die” for those who wish it to a “duty to die” for those who do not. It is contrary to the medical profession’s fundamental purpose and integrity. It makes the choice for death a mainstream option that may attract those, including young people, whose depression or despair can be addressed in lifegiving ways. It weakens motivation to develop better therapies and end-of-life care. It may trade lives for dollars, as hastening death is inevitably cheaper than extending care for a longer period; indeed a recent report from Canada made that financial point clearly and without any moral concern for the social costs.

But such principled arguments often fail to persuade those who favor assisted suicide. Some focus on admirable concern to alleviate suffering, even to the point of ending life to achieve it. Others believe that individual freedom extends as far as this choice to end one’s life, validated and facilitated by law.

Suffering does call for compassion and relief. Palliative care exists precisely to attend to the physical, psycho-social, and spiritual distress of those who face serious illness, and also seeks to support their caregivers. States that have legalized assisted suicide report that when bodily and emotional pain are addressed – whether the suffering is current or (as is most common) anticipated in the future – requests for assisted suicide are withdrawn.

Each day, families deal with the tragedy of suicide. The fear, loneliness, and personal pain borne by some may lead them to find the future unbearable, and they seek an end to their distress. Such existential suffering calls for more care, not less, in gestures of hope and presence.

Some chapters of life’s story challenge us to the core.

They may make no sense, or drag on, or stir difficult memories and feelings. But they are never unimportant for shaping who we are, as individuals and as a society.

This above all is when we need one another. Quality of life is not defined in isolation solely by symptoms and pain scales; it is determined in no small measure by the kindness and mercy of those around the person in need.

These often emerge at the end of life’s story in ways we never knew before.

While death will visit each of us, it need not be our master. Suffering, fear, and dependence on others may threaten what we cherish and hold important in life, but assisted suicide would allow death to have the final and strongest word.

In thirty-six years of ministry, I have been inspired by so many examples of tireless and genuine care for those approaching death. Medical professionals, neighbors, families, even strangers, have supported, accompanied, comforted, laughed and cried along with one whose life was impacted, but not defined or devalued, by the prospect of dying. To be present, hold a loved one’s hand, and keep vigil with a fading light – these reveal the unfading dignity of human life and demonstrate the mutual gift of true compassion that enriches both those who give and those who receive.

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