So many topics in the public forum are hot-button emotional issues. It is the sensational topics as well as the extreme positions on the ends of the political spectrum that get the big media attention.
Now, along comes the doctor-assisted suicide debate in our state. It is yet another issue that can be inflated in order to deflect attention from the weightier issues in New York, such as campaign finance reform, effective ethics reform and mandate relief for local governments and school districts. We can expect the legislative leaders and the governor to play with this assisted suicide issue, especially now that the mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, is boldly criticizing the governor’s proposed budget.
With large numbers of baby boomers approaching old age, moves to legalize assisted suicide are under way. New York is one of 10 states where bills related to the issue will soon be under consideration. Our lawmakers would be unwise to legalize the practice here.
In so many areas of public life, we need to turn up the volume of the moderate, rational voices, as Miner is doing by forcing the issue of mandate relief for local governments into the political debate in Albany. In this public debate about doctor-assisted suicide, just like the debate on so many other state issues — from public education reform to gun control to hydrofracking and even to drug law reform — the moderate position is the sensible one.
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On one extreme, we have the partisans of letting good doctors help terminally ill patients perform suicide. Social progressives in favor of assisted suicide believe that it is time to die when there is more evil than good in living. To them there are apparently few, if any, cultural and historical precedents that should go unchallenged.
On the other extreme, we have the very vocal voices on the conservative right making the overly simplistic argument that suicide, just like abortion, should never be an individual choice.
A good argument can be made that both extremes — the progressive liberal and the neo-Republican perspectives — are not the basis of reason-based public policy in 2013.
Let’s face it: some good arguments — and many bad ones — can be made on both sides of the issue. Here, though, is a centrist argument on why doctor-assisted suicide is a bad idea.
The centrist argument
First of all, let’s establish that doctor-assisted suicide is not the major policy issue that it is made out to be. In Oregon between 1998 and 2011, according to The New York Times, 596 patients used doctor-assisted suicide — only about 0.2 percent of dying patients. Indications are that few people will avail themselves of this option if it is legalized in New York state.
Is it really worth, then, upsetting 2,500 years of cultural practice going back to Hippocrates for the sake of a minuscule minority?
Certainly, however, it is important not to discount the argument that prolonging pain for hopelessly ill patients can be inhumane. Even so, evidence from Oregon indicates that individuals are choosing doctor-assisted suicide because they are depressed, not because they are suffering intolerable pain. Pain medications have by now become so effective that the great majority of terminally ill patients are dying without suffering intolerable pain.
Another reason why moderates should be very wary about supporting the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide in New York state is that suicide is already a fully legal option for sufferers who wish to end their lives. Far fewer terminally ill patients than we are led to believe actually require the help of a doctor to end their lives if they choose to do so.
One more persuasive argument against legalization of assisted suicide is the point that medicine, in its essence, is a healing profession. To involve doctors and nurses in the business of inducing death is a contradiction of their basic mission.
We already are tolerating torture of military prisoners, euphemistically termed “enemy combatants,” as well as tolerating lethal drone strikes against U.S. citizens. In this present ethical climate do we also want to sanction erasing another linchpin ethical standard? To do so would not be wise public policy.
Instead of wasting our energy trying to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, a sensational issue that will probably be used to deflect attention from more serious New York state issues, legislators and the governor should ignore the calls for placing it in a prominent place on the legislative agenda.
Hospice care option
People who really care about end-of-life issues might instead advocate for expanding hospice care and counseling services. An expansion of hospice care would help far more people at the end of life than would a doctor-assisted suicide provision in the law.
Over the next decade or so, much depends on moderate voices carving out a more prominent space in the public policy debates. On the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, the centrist position — between the extremes — is where the common sense lies. Doctor-assisted suicide is not a good idea.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.