Suicide and Narrow Social Agendas

Over the past few decades, questions of abortion and homosexuality have increasingly dominated the public debate on “social issues” and “moral values.” Occasionally, other issues manage to receive equal attention – the HHS contraceptive mandate, for instance, created quite a fracas last year – but inevitably the two most controversial subjects in social policy will reassert themselves. It’s beginning to look as if non-economic or security issues need to involve sex, or at least its consequences, in order to capture the attention of the general public.

This is not to say that issues such as abortion and homosexuality are unimportant. On the contrary, they have rarely been more so. For the first time, the military includes openly gay and lesbian troops, a sitting U.S. president supports same-sex marriage, and some polls are showing a majority of Americans in favor of rewriting traditional marriage laws. Conservative states are becoming increasingly successful in their attempts to regulate abortion providers out of business. It would be hard to argue that either “mega” social issue deserves little of the attention it currently receives. But there is also no reason why either of them should monopolize the national conversation.

This lack of breadth in the public discourse is especially unfortunate in my home state of Massachusetts. By voting “Yes” to Question 2 this November, Massachusetts voters could decide the future of the world’s attitude towards physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill by choosing to decriminalize the practice.

Such a scenario would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, when assisted suicide was illegal everywhere outside Germany and Switzerland and a near-global consensus existed that the practice was a violation of human rights. Yet since Oregon passed the Death With Dignity Act in 1994, decriminalizing physician-assisted suicide, the “Right to Die” movement has built up considerable global momentum. Between 1997 and 2009 it has succeeded in passing Oregon-like laws or court rulings in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Colombia, as well as the states of Washington and Montana. The global consensus on the relationship between the medical profession and the “sanctity of life,” such as it was, has vanished.

An assisted suicide law in Massachusetts would be a game-changer. Massachusetts is a leader in health care policy, on the global as well as the local level. Medical technology developed by researchers at Tufts, MIT and Harvard set the standard for the rest of the planet, and wealthy citizens from around the world flock to Boston to receive treatment, including Osama Bin Laden’s sister, whose death in Massachusetts General Hospital enabled doctors to determine bin Laden’s identity after the Abbottabad raid. If passed, it would be enormously influential, in the same way that “Romneycare” proved enormously influential in the precedent it set for the Affordable Care Act. When it comes to health care, the phrase “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” could easily be applied to the Pine Tree State’s southern neighbor.

Few would argue that the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill is of little importance. The terminally ill suffer terribly in their last days, and many think it unconscionable and unjust to force them to go through so much pain. Others protest, arguing that doctors must be responsible for protecting life at all times, never for ending life, and that any form of legal assisted suicide sets a dangerous precedent that will lead to a more widespread and dangerous norm of euthanasia, They also fear that some patients will be coerced into premature death by impatient families who are tired of paying their medical bills.

The issue also takes on a religious component. Opponents of assisted suicide often claim that God (and, perhaps, the justice system) alone has the power to take life, and that nobody has the right to bring about his or her own death. But using this argument as a legal rationale is controversial. Many believe that in a pluralist state with no official state religion, religious beliefs should not form the basis for any law. Even if God has forbidden mankind from ending life early, it is argued, enshrining His will in state law solely because it is His will cannot fly in a nation that prohibits establishments of religion.

Whoever is right, the debate is undeniably of supreme importance. At stake are quantities and qualities of human lives, First Amendment principles and the will of God Himself. It is time for us to broaden the scope of our political discourse. It is essential that when we discuss social issues – abortion and gay marriage are hardly insignificant matters – but we cannot stop at the glowing hot-button questions.

Whether or not Question 2 passes in Massachusetts, the issue of assisted suicide will likely appear on the radar of other state legislatures. (The Supreme Court has decreed the matter a state issue.) Voters will likely be forced to choose which candidates to vote for – pro-assisted suicide candidates or those who oppose the practice – when the question becomes salient in their own state. Those who choose to become one-issue voters, or voters who focus exclusively on a narrow field of issues and ignore new and emerging questions, are failing to give due thought to the full consequences of their vote for their fellow Americans – including, all too often, the ones who lie at the brink of death.

-Jack Hanke is a sophomore at Gordon College