The Big Lie about Assisted Suicide

  • James Tonkowich Columnist
  • 2014 10 Nov
The Big Lie about Assisted Suicide

It is no small irony that when I accessed Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column praising terminal brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard’s “courageous” assisted suicide, an ad for Source America appeared with the article featuring Denise Kasten, a woman with Downs Syndrome. 

“Courageous” mothers typically kill off children like Denise through abortion. Downs syndrome children, after all, live Brittany Maynard’s great fears. They’re limited and dependent as long as they live. That, in a society obsessed with independence defined as personal autonomy, constitutes for many people Lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life.” 

A friend contrasted Brittany Maynard’s suicide with Lauren Hill’s basketball dreams. Hill like Maynard has terminal brain cancer, a cancer that will debilitate her and kill her. Unlike Maynard, instead of opting for a quick death by lethal injection, Hill turned her attention to basketball, playing in the season opener for Mount St. Joseph University, a game played early to accommodate Hill’s imminent death. She scored two baskets in front of an enthusiastic, supportive overflow crowd.

And while there’s certainly a contrast between the two women, for the secular observer, it’s all a matter of “courageous” autonomous choices. In a CNN article, Wayne Drash lumped them together: “Two women captured our hearts; both were dying of brain cancer. Both taught us to cherish life—that nothing is greater than the human spirit. …Maynard conveyed a stirring message about being allowed to die on her own terms; Hill’s cause was infectious as she conveyed a never-give-up spirit.” 

Each made her own choice and who’s to say one was right and one was wrong? Individual choice—regardless of what we choose—is, after all, our highest value. It’s all “courageous” and everyone is a winner.

Thus, as Michael Gerson wrote concerning another assisted suicide case, “If you're overriding values are individual autonomy and choice, this is an easy case. In fact, all cases—however individually tragic—are theoretically easy. A mentally ill criminal—or a lonely senior, or a depressed teenager—has every right to take his or her own life. It is just another profound, self-determining decision, like marriage or retirement. Retirement from an existence one finds unbearable.”

Though this ideology of autonomy and choice sounds promising, it’s a lie and a trap that leads to the end of all autonomy and choices. Assisted suicide, after all, is not for everyone. Gerson points out, “The right to suicide adheres, in this case, not to all human beings but to sick and apparently flawed human beings. And such a ‘right’ begins to look more and more like an expectation. A mentally or physically ill person can be killed, in the end, because they have an illness. A qualification can slide into a justification. This is a particularly powerful social message since people with cancer or severe depression sometimes feel worthless, or like a burden on their families, anyway. It is pitifully easy to make them—with an offer of help—into instruments of their own execution.”

The right to die too easily morphs into their obligation to die, a fact borne out by the mounting death toll by euthanasia and assisted suicide in the Netherlands. Dutch laws intended to help the terminally ill now allow doctors to kill not only the terminally ill, but the depressed, the demented, the mentally ill, the aged, and even the lonely. 

Such people are, after all, a drag on the pursuit of autonomy by family and friends. They’re a drag on healthcare, medical workers, and the economy. “Freeing” them by death frees us from the choice-limiting obligations they represent. Are they Lebensunwertes Leben? Maybe. 

At the end of his column, Richard Cohen writes, “I want the same control over the end that I have had over what came before it. This is all that Brittany Maynard wanted.” This is the lie of doomed autonomy writ large. It’s also delusional. Who controls any of the big facts of his or her life? Who controls our conception, birth, parents, siblings, family, neighborhood, nation, teachers, college admission officers, hiring managers, romantic interests, children, accidents, or ailments? We have precious little control. And since Cohen’s premise about control is nonsense, his conclusion about control is also nonsense—in this case, deadly nonsense.

Driving the assisted suicide movement is the profoundly anti-human lie of individual autonomy and personal choice. The lie promises freedom and life, but, as we can already see, delivers bondage and death. “Let your credo be this,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.” 

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: November 5, 2014