In the summer of 2015, citizens of the city showed up in large numbers to support or oppose the bill; a public hearing went on for hours as many advocates, one after another, insisted that the city not legalize the measure.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has been outspoken against the measure, and other assisted suicide measures that have been introduced in states around the country in what he called “a concerted aggressive campaign…which plays on people’s darkest fears and exploits their vulnerabilities to advance ideas and practices that have long been understood to be grave infamies opposed to human dignity and which poison human society.”
What is at stake is nothing less than how society views human life, he maintained.
“We are facing a seismic shift in how we, as a society, will look at life in the future and, even more frightening, what powers the state will have to determine who lives and who dies,” he said.
“We are all responsible for working to protect all human life until it ends naturally, until the time that God alone appoints for our departure. It is not for us to decide the hour, we are not the arbiters of life and death.”
The D.C. bill is flawed for a number of reasons, Silecchia explained to CNA.
For one, any two physicians could write a prescription for a fatal drug overdose request, no matter how little they know the patient. Also, if patients are refused their request by their primary care physician, they could just seek out another doctor who may not know them well, but will write them a prescription.
“This undermines the dignity of those who suffer by suggesting to them – while they are most vulnerable – that their lives no longer have value,” she said.
Witnesses of the patient’s consent could be an “interested party” – someone who could benefit financially or personally from the patient’s death – Silecchia noted, raising even more ethical challenges to the proposal.
Also, the measure may apply disproportionately to the “most vulnerable,” like low-income or elderly persons who feel they may be a “burden” to friends and family as they become sicker, and those suffering from mental illness like depression or anxiety, she explained.
Herbert Hendin, M.D. has written on the psychological issues surrounding patients with terminal diagnoses. In his book Seduced by Death, he explained how many of these patients, when they fear a terminal diagnosis, desire to end their lives – but many of them are suffering from a curable mental illness that can be treated.
It’s not the fear of death that exacerbates their psychological condition, but rather the fear of dying, he explained, when “patients displace anxieties about death onto the circumstances of dying: dependence, loss of dignity, and the unpleasant side effects of medical treatments.”
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The advocacy group “Not Dead Yet” has also claimed that such fears drive a patient’s desire to die, noting that “among the top five reasons given” for a fatal prescription request “are feelings of being a ‘burden on others’ (41%) or feeling a ‘loss of autonomy’ (92%) or ‘loss of dignity’ (78%).”
“These are not about pain from a terminal disease, but are psychological and social issues that cry out for meaningful supports and genuine care,” the group continued.
“Yet the assisted suicide law does not even require disclosures about consumer controlled home care options to address feelings of loss of autonomy or feelings of being a burden on family, much less require that those services be provided.”
“When these fears are dealt with by a caring and knowledgeable physician, the request for death usually disappears,” he added.
In his experience treating these patients, Hendin found that when a patient chose treatment over a fatal prescription and resolved his fears – as well as unresolved conflicts he may have had with friends or family – he greatly appreciated his final months to do so, even if he experienced physical suffering in that time.
And, some warn, the legalization of assisted suicide actually opens the door for the normalization of other dark practices like euthanasia.