Physician Assisted Suicide Comes to California: Why I'm Against It

We received word today that California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows for physician assisted suicide.

Not surprisingly feelings run high on both sides and I feel the need to add my input. I’m against it and fear this will lead to all sorts of problems.

I should probably come clean and tell you that I have some skin in the game. For the past 17 years I’ve made my living as a hospice chaplain; I’ve spent these years walking with people (from 15 days to 102 years) through the last chapter of their lives. My wife Nancy is a physician, though as a pediatrician she won’t confront these issues.

The idea of a person choosing to end his life is as old as King Saul in the Old Testament.

Reasons for suicide are manifold. Saul killed himself to avoid capture in battle. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) killed himself as a result of depression. In 1978, 909 people killed themselves in Jonestown on instructions from Jim Jones.

The concept of suicide to accelerate a terminal disease is fairly recent. For most of our history illness and death followed so closely that nobody who was sick even entered the idea of hastening the process.

That’s changed in the last century. Terminal events like pneumonia or appendicitis are now easily curable even when they present in people with terminal cancer, heart disease, or dementia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with family members who have chosen aggressive treatment for things we can fix and then told me that they favor assisted suicide because their loved ones “wouldn’t want to live like this.”

I believe decisions about quality of life need to happen much before anyone says: “There’s nothing more we can do.” Physician assisted suicide has become an issue only because we wait much too late to have hard discussions about how we want the last chapter of our life to go.

Anyone who receives a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or Parkinson’s Disease or ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease) knows that death will eventually become much closer. But if the 20th Century gave us the false belief that we can control our lives through science, it appears that the 21st Century may well provide us with the false belief that we should be able to control our deaths.

We can’t. For those of us who hold beliefs in a reality beyond our understanding, we need to embrace the humility to accept the possibility that we are here for reasons that elude even our wisdom. A chance encounter that leads us to a lifetime marriage. An abusive relationship, however brief, that provides us with a child that gives our life true meaning. A broken condom that gives birth to a Nobel award winner.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in the last two decades who announce to me that all the purpose of their lives have already passed. They’ve used the words “useless” and “waste” to describe their last days. I tell them this: “How can you tell that your days are useless and your life is a waste? How can you decide that the home health aide who comes to give you a shower today won’t be inspired by you? How can you decide that this isn’t the moment when he or she will decide to start working to be a doctor?”

I recognize that this scenario is far fetched, but can you tell me it’s impossible? This surprises most people I know, but when I was a child I hated to go to church with a white hot passion. Sunday mornings became a battlefield between me and my parents, me arguing that church was boring and them arguing that as long as I lived in their house I would go to church with them. Out of desperation more than faith, I finally threw down the gauntlet and told them that if I had to go to church I may as well be an altar boy and at least have something to do to fill the time.

Honestly, I expected my parents to squash that too, but they called my bluff. They told me that it would be fine with them, and they told me I should talk with the priest in charge of the altar boys after mass the next Sunday. My heart in my mouth, I approached him after mass and asked him about being an altar boy, praying he would tell me I couldn’t. He didn’t: instead he told me that a new class was starting soon and I was welcome to join.

I joined, became an altar boy, got more involved, found a home in the church, studied for the priesthood, became a priest, and transitioned to a hospice chaplain. In my years in ministry I’ve changed the lives of countless people and none of it would have happened if my parents didn’t call my bluff or if the priest didn’t encourage me to become an altar boy.

In the final analysis I oppose physician assisted suicide because I believe with all my heart that the last chapter of our lives may well inspire and change the first chapters of someone else’s life even if we don’t recognize it. An early exit, based on our fears instead of our hope or faith, might cheat someone we don’t even know now.

I recognize that my terminal illness is ahead of me. The seeds of my death already exist in my body: maybe it’s a cell in my pancreas or colon that will someday begin to replicate out of control. Maybe it’s a weak spot in an artery in my heart, brain, or abdomen. Maybe it’s my own bad judgement that tells me it’s ok to cross against the red light.

I pray that, at the end of my life, I still hold to the beliefs I profess now. My prayer is for courage. I pray that my faith gives me enough strength to allow me to trust that my hospice nurse can manage my pain, my hospice social worker will acknowledge my strength, my hospice chaplain will respect my beliefs, and my home health aide will care for me with the dignity I need.

Mostly I pray that the end of my life will not call me to choose to kill myself.

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