The Common Good and Rights of the Individual
Is my right to assisted suicide trumped by the greater good of society?
I was intrigued by Dr.Michael Gospe's comments on the proposed assisted suicide bill currently being considered in our state legislature. Dr.Gospe, the Director of Medical Ethics at Memorial Hospital, is quoted in the Press Democrat article of Sunday May 15 as saying, “Their (those in favor of the bill) emphasis is more on an individual and my concern is more with society. I worry about the poor person, the mentally handicapped person” Thank you Dr.Gospe for raising a very important issue
What is at stake here, it seems to me, is that any legislation must balance the rights of the individual to have his needs met with the common good of society. We are a country built on the values of rugged individualism, so it is all too easy for us to get so caught up in demanding our personal rights that we overlook the bigger picture, the greater good of society.
It's one thing to pose the question “Does an individual have the right to commit
suicide?” and quite another to ask “Should we pass a law that allows a doctor to assist him in taking his own life?” That's a far more complex question. Laws are made not only to safeguard the rights of individuals but also to protect the common good. Will the common good be served by making it legal for our medical healers to take on the role of legal accomplices in patients suicides? I don't think so.
I am not unaware of the agony good people endure in standing by helplessly while their loved ones suffer from a terminal illness. I personally have experienced this in the case of a close friend of mine, a woman of keen intelligence and wit, who suffered for months, kept alive way beyond her time. I wanted desperately to put her out of her nightmare. There was a moment, standing alone by her bedside, that if I had possessed the courage and was not afraid of the legal consequences, I may well have done the deed. So, I do understand the feelings of state assemblywoman, Patty Berg, who wanted a legal way to end her suffering husband's life. Those who are promoting this legislation are, I firmly believe, moved by compassion. They want to do no less for their loved ones than we do for our animals.
But I question passing a law that might have the effect of having patients look on doctors as purveyors of death as well as protectors of life. I'm suspicious of legislation that could tempt a health organization to encourage people to consider a painless way of death rather than prolong life (at considerably more cost). And if it were all perfectly legal for grandma to have a doctor help her to diss herself before she has spent all her finances, isn't it at least possible that the grandkids would encourage her to take that “unselfish” way out ?
In Holland, legislation that started out with good and compassionate intent is now being invoked by doctors to put severely disabled babies to death. In this country, laws legalizing capital punishment had all sorts of safeguards built into it to make sure no innocent person was ever put to death. Sadly, we are finding out through DNA technology that our safeguards were full of holes. We need to be very careful in passing legislation that can have consequences that go far beyond what we can foresee. We are talking here about the sanctity of life.
Hank Mattimore is a Santa Rosa resident and the author of “The Priest Who Couldn't Cheat.”