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A longer version of this article appeared in Soul, Oct., 1999. Updated most recently in April, 2010.

Assisted Suicide or Assisted Life?

Mary Meehan

"In Oregon right now, assisted suicide is considered a medical treatment," attorney Rita Marker told a conference in Washington, D.C., in March, 1999. Holding up a little pill bottle, she said that an Oregonian who is "diagnosed -- or misdiagnosed -- as having six months to live" can receive a bottle that says something like: "Take all pills with a light snack and alcohol to induce death."

Marker, who heads the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, was speaking at a Catholic conference that considered obstacles to building "a culture of life."

Oregon was then the only state that specifically permits assisted suicide, but Marker warned that it "will be proposed everywhere." (Washington State later legalized it.) In assisted suicide, doctors provide lethal drugs, and patients swallow them or inject themselves with them. In direct euthanasia, doctors give lethal injections. Catholics have joined many others--believers and non-believers, medical professionals and lay people--in resisting pressures to legalize both forms of killing.

Speakers at the conference stressed the importance of forming coalitions to oppose the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. "Form coalitions now," Marker urged, mentioning disability groups and doctors' and nurses' organizations as good coalition partners. She also noted that lawyers and doctors who work in poverty areas tend to understand that poor people are vulnerable to pressures for euthanasia.

Also vulnerable are old people of all incomes and anyone who has a serious disability. They are susceptible to psychological distress--often including depression--and to economic pressures in this era of managed care.

Marker stressed the need for alternatives, including better efforts in pain control. She urged conference participants to "go to bat for" people whose pain is not adequately controlled. Dr. Walter Hunter, an expert in hospice care, said that there is "simply no excuse" for serious pain in dying patients. And Dr. Eric Chevlen, a cancer specialist, suggested that patients should fire doctors who do not provide enough pain control.

Marker noted that families who care for severely-ill or disabled patients at home also need assistance. Many family members supported retired pathologist Jack Kevorkian when he helped their loved ones commit suicide. But if "you scratch the surface and look a little further on that," she said, "you'll find that often the family was exhausted or at its wit's end." So it is necessary, she suggested, to build "community support systems for the family."

What can you do to help those who are elderly and/or disabled resist pressures for suicide and euthanasia--and rediscover the joy of life? A wealth of literature and experience suggest the following:

  • Check on elderly relatives to see if they need practical help of any kind. If they no longer drive, take them to outside events--a shopping trip, a ball game, a picnic in the park, a visit to an ice cream parlor--so they won't become isolated and lonely.

  • Sign for Scoops & Giggles Ice Cream Parlor, Western Maryland

  • Look in on elderly neighbors. Help them with practical needs such as grocery shopping; changing light bulbs they can no longer reach; or making safety checks of their homes for tripping hazards. (If you see throw rugs, roll them up and stash them away on a high closet shelf or, better, get rid of them altogether.)
  • Support family caregivers by staying with the patient so the caregivers can take a break, or by preparing a special meal for the whole family.
  • Don't let embarrassment about what to say keep you away from a friend who is dying. (One woman whose husband died of cancer remarked later that friends "stayed away in droves.") You may well find that your friend wants to talk about old times and old friends--not death. In any case, trust that you'll find the right words when you need them.
  • Volunteer in your local nursing home, helping with recreational, educational or spiritual programs or just visiting people who are lonely. Many residents need more intellectual stimulation: a slide show on the national parks by a talented photographer, a "Do You Remember?" talk by an antiques dealer who displays 1940s collectibles, a Green Thumb Club led by a passionate gardener. Perhaps you can provide the special talent and leadership.

  • White and red flowers with a brick-wall background

  • Don't stop visiting friends or family members who no longer recognize you by name. They still need human contact--perhaps now more than ever. Remember that the main point is how they feel, not how you feel.
  • Encourage others, including children, to visit your elderly friends. Sometimes a child brightens up a senior in a way that no one else can.
  • Be an advocate for those who need help--but are too weak or frail to ask for it--from their church, a nursing home ombudsman, Social Security, or other agencies.
  • Wherever possible, try to get the person out into the community. This means the church community, too, which in turn means wheelchair access and other practical aids in church buildings. Disability rights activist Mary Jane Owen warns against the "shut-in" mentality. She likes to ask, "Who shut out the shut-ins? Who said they are not a vital part of our parish...our lives...our community?"

People who are involved in the community and encouraged to live life to the fullest usually want to keep on living. They don't sit around plotting their own demise, hoarding pills for an overdose, or asking doctors to give them lethal injections. They haven't forgotten the joy of life.

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