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Euphemisms Aside, Human Dignity Is Intrinsic

Wesley J. Smith

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Beware movements that engineer words and deploy gooey euphemisms to further an agenda. It generally means there is something very wrong with that agenda.

In the wake of Brittany Maynard’s death, suicide promoters are now using the word "dignity" as a synonym for suicide, more than implying that dying naturally is not dignity. That is not only cruel, it is wrong.

Dignity is intrinsic. Sick and dying people seeking to be assured they still have it look at us — our faces — like mirrors. If they see us thinking they are less than they once were, it can be devastating.

In the Guardian, Brian Smith — obviously no relation — says his father should have been able to commit dignity rather than die of old age and the effects of post-polio syndrome. From, "What Do You Tell Your Father When He’s Ready to Die?":

But over time, his body began to break down, and breathing became labored. The polio had come back, this time in the form of post-polio syndrome, which weakens muscles that were affected the first time around. Dad’s ailment would slowly strip him of his independence, his ability to move and, eventually, his ability to breathe. If this was death’s door, he was rapping it with what knuckles he could. His decline would last nearly a decade before his doctors gave up on treatments and assigned visits from hospice nurses.

For my father’s disease, there is no cure.

But there is always care — and love — which the Smith family apparently gave Dad in bounteous quantities. Good.

But the elder Mr. Smith continued to decline:

As his days devolved into a drudgery of pills, bad daytime TV, and constant reliance on a breathing machine, Dad told us he was ready to die. "I’m done," my father said. But choosing to die, or even assisting someone who wants to die, is a felony in California. Our options to humanely end the suffering were limited.

Self-starvation and dehydration remain the only legal ways to help someone choose when they die in the state. But few of us can muster the strength to starve to death, and caretakers – including Medicare-supported hospice nurses — are not in the business of starving people.

Saying, "I’m done," isn’t the same thing as saying, "I want to commit suicide!" Yet, that is what Smith wished for his father. Indeed, Smith never writes that his father asked to be killed.

I have been there. When my dad was dying of colon cancer, a moment came when he was sitting on his bed and we were talking. He suddenly looked up at me and sighed deeply with an expression that said, "I’m done," more loudly than if he had uttered the words.

That wasn’t the same thing as saying, "Kill me." Dad wasn’t saying, "Get me the poison pills." He was saying, "I am done fighting."

We moved to hospice mode, and he died a few months later — with true dignity. He did not commit suicide.

As the column notes, people can make themselves dead if they want to. Do we really want to make suicide easier?

And note the consequences of accepting the destructive meme that suicide is dignity. One commenter takes Smith’s advocacy to its logical place:

The Oregon law is a good beginning, but it should apply also to those facing incurable pain, paralysis or imprisonment that could go on for years.

Exactly right. When it comes to assisted suicide, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The question isn’t terminal illness. Many people suffer more and for longer than the dying. The issue is whether facilitated suicide is a right. If it is, it can’t be limited to the dying. Indeed, perhaps other than to those with only a transitory desire to die, it can’t be limited at all.

My good friend the late poet and disability rights activist Mark O’Brien contracted polio at age six. He lived the rest of his life in an iron lung. Mark was adamantly against assisted suicide. He too died from post-polio syndrome. He died with dignity, not by suicide.

So, let’s have an honest debate. A right to facilitated suicide? Yes or no. Just don’t call it "dignity."

Image source: Ashley Rose/Flickr.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.



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