When physicians recognize that their patients who are near the end of life are suffering severe pain, they prescribe palliative care—that is, patients are made as comfortable as possible with medication, while they linger—awaiting an inevitable death. Comatose patients, for example, may have feeding tubes inserted into their stomachs, and, unless fortunate, are housed in "nursing" homes while awaiting their end. It is not a pretty sight.
Prolonging a life that is clearly at its end is based on the idea that life of any quality is precious, and being alive is better than not being alive. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is believed that all life is given by God (Genesis 2:7, 21-22) and that the taking of human life is prohibited by Exodus 20:13: "You shall not kill" (usually understood as "not kill unjustifiably"). Hence all life is cherished and must be continued—including even the lives of those who are not able to reverse a painful terminal illness caused by disease. Such persons are sedated by narcotics that hopefully render them impervious to their worst suffering, while their lives continue slowly to dribble away. Persons who are fully cognizant of their situation and who desire help from a physician in ending their lives before the terrible suffering of their inevitable end, may or may not be able to find the help they need. I am assuming that the decision to end life by choice is to save themselves and their loved ones the indignity of the unnecessary suffering. There are likely other reasons as well; for example, they fear the suffering.
Public opinion is decidedly opposed to what many consider suicide, euthanasia, "mercy killing," or even murder. Southern Baptists, for example, devote one Sunday each year to study what they call "sanctity of life" issues (sanctity means holy or sacred). For Catholics suicide, euthanasia, and murder (1 John 3:15) are "mortal" sins (the term is taken from 1 John 5:16-17), meaning it is a serious sin for which one is condemned to hell if the sin is not forgiven.
Christian tradition uniformly condemns suicide, although neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament prohibits it and throughout antiquity suicide was "accepted, admired, and even sought after" (A. J. Droge, "Suicide," Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6.225). The Hebrew Bible does narrate several accounts of suicide, and those committing suicide are neither criticized nor commended by the biblical writers (Judges 9:54; 16:29-30; 1 Samuel 31:4-5; 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18).
Currently physician-assisted suicide is legal in four states (California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington); one state has legalized physician-assisted suicide by a court ruling (Montana); forty-one states prohibit it, and in four states the situation is unclear. (http://euthanasia.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000132)
My personal view of this situation is that being conscious even with pain, is better than being insentient; or put another way, life lived with physical difficulties and pain is better than a death that instantly banishes all pain—for as long as there is life there is hope! But I must also admit that I have been at the bedside of those who were suffering a lingering untimely death (specifically my sister and my mother, as well as others). It seems to me that being at the extremity of life and being fully conscious of the inevitable fact that my own life is dribbling away in suffering is a very different thing than living with difficulty and pain. Hence I cannot fault those who might choose a quick death over a painful lingering death.
What is the state's interest in prohibiting, rather than regulating, physician-assisted suicide? Should the state even be involved in enacting laws that prohibit people from ending life with dignity (as they might see it), and forcing them to choose between either unconscionable suffering or spending their last days in a drug induced virtual coma?
Opinions vary and are hotly debated. How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University