Those who oppose assisted suicide depend on illusions
By Robert Pieh
Robert Pieh, a recent graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, will be teaching English in Costa Rica beginning in August. He is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
The actions of Doreen Dunn, an Apple Valley woman who euthanized herself in 2007, have brought assisted suicide to the attention of Minnesotans. The Dakota County attorney is charging the Final Exit Network, the Georgia-based group that helped Dunn, with several counts of assisting a suicide and crime-scene tampering.
The cross-state lawsuit has forced Minnesotans to confront the legality of assisted suicide in our state. Among other common themes, two illusions are prominently being used by anti-euthanasia advocates.
Anti-euthanasia voices present legalization of assisted suicide as an invitation to a euthanasia party with an unacceptably large guest list. Like many overhyped parties, fewer people are actually attending than you imagine. Those who do appear have very deliberately chosen to do so.
The second deception maintained by euthanasia opponents is directed toward themselves. They convince themselves that they are protecting the lives of vulnerable people when they are really protecting themselves from acknowledging the possibility that sometimes death can be better than life. That someone of sound mind might actually choose to end his or her earthly life is horrifying to them. This horror is not surprising when we look at the value that quantity of life has over quality of life in America.
The prolonging of life often supersedes the fulfillment of life. When there isn't the possibility of the latter, there is no reason for the former. Doreen Dunn, who experienced chronic and debilitating pain for nearly 16 years, was free to decide whether or not this was the case for herself.
The last line of her physician's note reveals the nonphysical realm of pain in which Doreen's condition had placed her. It reads, "This pain also prevents any social life." The brevity of this statement should not undermine its importance. It is not only physical pain that pushes suffering people to euthanasia.
Like a football star's career-ending ACL tear, physical trauma can cause emotional devastation. When we ignore the psychological, emotional and social reasons for choosing assisted suicide, we ignore every aspect of an ill person that is not physiological. While said football star might be able to find another calling in life, many who suffer with chronic illness and pain do not have that option.
I worked at a nursing home during high school. For several residents, the home functioned as an unofficial hospice. My most vivid memory from the time is that of a tiny, skeletal woman in a wheelchair, pushing uselessly against the colossal double doors that led to the exit. When I asked her what I could help her with, she replied in a whisper, "Let me out. Please. Let me out. I won't tell anyone."
Her tone wasn't the usual one that residents used when they made unreasonable requests. It didn't contain the resignation that would have told me she didn't expect her wish to be granted. Instead, the woman's tone was desperate, tired and sincere. She had had enough and she wanted out.
Opponents of euthanasia would do well to spend some time in an end-of-life care center or hospital.
Some worry that legalized assisted suicide will coax vulnerable people into brashly choosing death over life. They may think that euthanasia is heavily prevalent where it is legal. They should look at euthanasia statistics in a state like Oregon, where it is legal.
Readily available on the state's official website are annual reports monitoring the effects of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act (DWDA). Over the past 14 years, 935 people received prescriptions under the act, and 596 ended their lives by ingesting them. This averages to 43 Oregon residents per year electing to end their lives. Their reasons for doing so varied. Some of the reasons are included in the reports. In 2011, 82.4 percent had cancer.
Although the fervor surrounding euthanasia can make it seem like an epidemic, only a moderate number of people with a variety of legitimate reasons are choosing the option.
Doreen Dunn had the strength to persevere through wretched pain longer than our state's eighth-graders have been alive. Her conviction to fight was as admirable as her conviction to contact the Final Exit Network. If we allow it, Doreen's story can function as a call to examine the ethics of euthanasia and its current illegal status in Minnesota.