Physician-Assisted Suicide Tells People Like Me That Our Lives Are No Longer Worth Living

The legalization of physician-assisted suicide sends the message that it is better to be dead than disabled. Do I lack dignity because I lack physical independence?

Many people talk about a culture of life in regards to abortion, but it applies to end-of-life issues as well. Rather than affirming that suicide becomes permissible when one is faced with a disabling condition, these times of vulnerability are exactly when we must remind each other that our lives are always valuable, in spite of—or perhaps because of—our dependence on others.

 

As a man with a physical disability, I need a lot of help to perform many basic daily activities. I still consider myself to be an independent thinker, but my physical independence is substantially limited by my severely reduced muscle strength. I need help to drive my van, get dressed, prepare my meals, and complete other daily tasks. For me, this is life. For many others, this level of dependence is motivation to consider bringing life to an end.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, out of thirty-five individual cases of people who were seriously considering physician-assisted suicide, twenty-three of the patients were motivated to pursue a hastened death because of a loss of bodily function. Twenty-two of these patients were motivated by a loss of sense of self, while twenty-one of them expressed fears about future quality of life and dying. To put this number in context, only fourteen of them were motivated to end their lives because of pain or the side effects of pain medications. Instead, each of the most highly cited reasons for pursuing physician-assisted suicide are related to issues of dependence and independence. Our society tells us that autonomy is what makes life worth living. Once these patients began to lose bodily function, they were told that they were also losing their identity and quality of life.

Personally, as an individual with a disability, I believe that I have a very high quality of life. I have a job I enjoy, I have friends I like to see, I have a sport I like to play, and I am pursuing a doctoral degree. I have a full life, and I enjoy what I am doing. Consequently, it is not surprising at all that I have a high quality of life even though I do have less independence than most other people. I am doing what I enjoy, and I am thankful for that.

Plenty of other people in my situation, however, would not enjoy their lives. Even if they could, for instance, play power wheelchair soccer, as I do, they might not enjoy it. Instead of being thankful for the ability to play a sport, they might only be able to see what they cannot do, focusing on how it is different from the soccer they could play as an able-bodied person. Obviously, quality of life is going to be impacted by one’s perception of his or her own situation. Because I have a desire to enjoy my life, I would not consider physician-assisted suicide. Yet many, like those in the study above, are susceptible to this fatal choice because they feel that life is no longer worth living. These people naturally believe that their life is of a lower quality because they have lost their independence.

Which perspective should our society try to reinforce?

Better Dead Than Disabled

Legally, the government has two choices. Laws that prohibit physician-assisted suicide encourage a worldview that says there is value to life and it ought not to be thrown away based on an individual’s subjective perception of his or her situation. Such laws teach us that our lives are objectively valuable, even if we do not recognize our own value. And they teach everyone else to help us in finding value and enjoyment in our lives.

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