(CNA) -Two worlds collided when scholars with opposite viewpoints met in Boulder, Colorado to debate the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.
“We have a right to look at the proper response to someone who wants to commit suicide. We aren’t talking about general morality – we are talking about society and public policy protecting the general welfare,” stated Wesley Smith, a lawyer, author, and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.
The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, an intellectual arm of ministry on the campus of The University of Colorado Boulder sponsored the Feb. 4 event – their eighth annual in the ‘Great Debate’ series. The topic in question was “Should the U.S. legalize doctor-assisted suicide?”
The debate of this issue was particularly timely given Colorado’s HB 1135 bill, known as the ‘Colorado Death with Dignity Act,’ that would allow physicians to prescribe lethal pharmaceuticals to terminally ill patients in order to end their lives. The proposed legislation will be heard in committee on Feb. 6.
California is also considering an assisted suicide bill. Similar measures have already been legalized in Oregon, Montana, Washington, New Jersey, and Vermont.
The measures have sparked controversy, drawing opposition from disability rights groups who claim that they would discriminate against those with disabilities and dangerously fail to screen for and treat depression, instead sending patients home with lethal drugs. In addition, critics including the Catholic Church warn that such legislation would send the message to society that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with suffering.
Smith, who serves as a consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide as well as the Center for Bioethics and Culture, also voiced opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide, while Dr. Michael Tooley, an author and philosophy professor at CU Boulder, known for his works on causation and ethics, argued in defense of such measures.
“There are cases when a person is better off dead than alive, a view that should be determined by the actual person – a life that he or she would want to live or not, and it should not be a spur of the moment decision,” argued Tooley.
He said that physician-assisted suicide may be in the best interest of a terminally ill person when this decision to end the patient’s life does not violate the rights of the patient or anyone else, and when it would benefit – rather than harm – the person involved.
On the other hand, Smith held that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide would make a strong statement about the quality and worth of humanity in general, creating a slippery slope.
“When we say that someone is killable – which is what we are saying when we point to certain categories of people in physician-assisted suicide – we are creating a profound inequality of life,” Smith stated, arguing that if a terminally ill patient can be killed, than anyone who is suffering from back pain, depression, or chronic pain could have that same “right.”
In fact, Smith argued, physician-assisted suicide is not really about patients suffering from a terminal disease.
“This is not an issue that is about terminal illness at all. In fact, the concept of terminal illness is a kind of hide-the-ball circumstance, a false flag game to get people’s minds off of what’s really involved in this issue,” he said.
According to Smith, the bottom line behind physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and related procedures is the premise that killing is an acceptable end to human suffering.
“Why now?” he questioned “When 100 years ago, at the time when people died in agony from a burst appendix, they weren’t talking about suicide and euthanasia. Now, when we don’t have to die in agony, we are talking about euthanasia?”
When society sees the elimination of suffering as the foundational purpose of society, he said, this mindset will spread to other circles – including those who suffer from depression, mental illness, and disabilities – giving them the green light to end their lives as well.
“There are a lot of people who suffer far more extremely than the terminally ill and for far longer periods,” he charged.
Even if physician-assisted suicide is initially legalized for only the terminally ill, it will eventually broaden to include the legal killing of those who are not terminally ill, Smith said, point to the examples of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Countering this belief, Tooley maintained that a person should be allowed to make the decision to die on the condition that they are terminal and have a good reason to end their life.
Although there may be dangers associated with legalizing assisted suicide, the professor argued that similar dangers are also presented when it is not legal.
“The rights of individuals are more likely to be violated when physician-assisted suicide is not legal rather than when it is permitted,” he said, and it is more likely for people to die from passive euthanasia if there are not laws mitigating choice in the matter.
“It should be up to the individual if his or her life is worth living,” Tooley maintained, because choice has a fundamental role in the issue, especially when this choice does not violate anyone’s rights, interfere with the patient’s obligations, or make the world a worse place.
“It does make for a far worse world because it’s not a choice,” rebutted Smith, “it’s the end of choice.”
“We should say no to their killing and yes to their caring,” Smith stressed, because the lives of people with sickness, disease, and disability matter.