by Joy Zavalick
September 9, 2021
In the U.S., the week of September 5-11 marks National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is an indisputably painful topic to consider, summoning grief for all those who have lost a loved one to it. This tragedy does not take only one form, however; even as the nation remembers those who grievously have been taken by suicide, a steadily increasing number of states have created an avenue for legal physician-assisted suicide (PAS).
When Oregon passed the nation’s first Death With Dignity Act in 1997, it was an anomaly that can be traced as a root cause of the pervasive devaluing of human life we see in America. Following this legislative model, nine other states and the District of Columbia have created “death with dignity” statutes or provided state Supreme Court protection for PAS: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington. Perhaps most alarmingly, seven of these 11 jurisdictions have created their provisions since 2016.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness states their desire for “any person experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors to have a number to call, a system to turn to, that would connect them to the treatment and support they need.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden claims that his state’s Death With Dignity Act “has helped to improve end-of-life health care for thousands of Oregonians. We are proud Oregon leads the way […] providing peace of mind for the terminally ill.”
Though the soothing language of these two perspectives is similar, their messages are decisively contrary; the former urges patients to resist suicidal thoughts, while the latter encourages their fulfillment.
The paradox of the American desire to prevent suicide, while simultaneously creating legal avenues for it, demonstrates a deep disparity between the proclaimed values of the nation and the legislation being passed by its representatives. It is illogical to oppose suicide when a healthy individual performs it, but to champion the “right” to commit it when a person is terminally ill.
Though advocates for these laws cry “Death with dignity,” the message they send to those with terminal illnesses is that their lives are burdensome, unworthy, and less dignified than everyone else’s. When considering that those struggling with depression are more likely to request assisted suicide, it is clear that causing vulnerable patients to regard their own lives as less worthwhile creates the demand for PAS.
Consistent messaging about the purpose that every human life possesses is crucial in order to successfully advocate for suicide prevention. If terminally ill patients are told that they qualify to end their own lives due to physical suffering or deterioration, how can mentally ill individuals be told to turn away from suicidal thoughts caused by their mental strife? The increasing prevalence of PAS in the states contradicts the culture of suicide prevention, which is so widely accepted that the nation designates a week to recognize it.
The Death With Dignity National Center, which advocates for the legalization of PAS across the states, ironically advises those who have not yet received their suicide prescription, “While you are waiting, don’t forget to live your life and look for a little bit of joy in every day.” Outside of the context of PAS, this advice would ring true; actual “death with dignity” must come naturally, and the life that exists before it must be treasured and lived abundantly.
In order to appropriately recognize the worth and purpose of human life, we must ban PAS and take a consistent stance in opposition to all forms of suicide.
Joy Zavalick is Research Assistant for the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council.