Jim Crawford: The legislation of dying

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 25, 2024

In the United States, several states have passed legislation granting assisted suicide, and several other states currently have legislation under consideration for providing legal protection for self-determination in dying. Canada has moved beyond assisted suicide legislation to euthanasia acceptance.

Is the end-of-life choice a political right, a moral decision, a philosophical conundrum or a religious prohibition?

Most religions find either assisted suicide or euthanasia anathema based on doctrine granting only God the right to end life, as God is the grantor of life. However, most religions also allow some tolerance for exceptional circumstances. 

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For example, the Episcopal Church argues, “Although we have a clear moral norm against the taking of human life, there may be cases that stand beyond judgment.” 

This edge of flexibility has found residence in several Canadian churches, where the government has legalized end-of-life independence and several of the churches have found tolerance for the policies.

 As a political consideration, in recognition that the U.S. Constitution in Article Ten grants to “The People” all rights not designated to the government, end-of-life is partially legislated. Specifically, the government has a role in end-of-life by its actions in capital punishment, in justifying actions to end human life. 

It is a role the American people have supported in polling for decades. The logical extension of that would suggest that citizens would also hold an individual right to end life, where the government has no justification or jurisdiction to do so itself.

In a moral or philosophical context, it could be argued that the moral high ground lies in the words of William Ernest Henley from Invictus: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” This follows the long-held American values of independence and individualism, which grant freedom of choice even at an end-of-life decision. Should our final days be determined by ourselves or by others who would then hold control over our bodies?

 Finally, the most human questions are compassion, empathy, and acceptance. It is impossible not to have compassion for one suffering pain without end and in a terminal condition. We would wish them a speedy end to their suffering. Most of us would also be unable to deny our empathy for those consigned to die alone or in a palliative institution, away from their loved ones, apart from anyone but a professional caregiver.

But among the objections to authorizing the “Right to Die” are the cynical considerations that such a policy might lead to killing our elders because their medical costs are prohibitively expensive, that many might opt to surrender life when their conditions remain treatable or curable or that authorizing such freedom demeans the value of human life for little more than convenience.

The Canadian experience has expanded since originally created in 2017. The expanded version, named C-7, allows not only for the freedom to die when a natural death is foreseeable but also when those who are likely to die in the near future. In 2021, 10,064 Canadians took their lives under this law, about three percent of all Canadian deaths. Only about 200 individuals used this law without possessing a terminal illness.

In the United States, considerable activity is underway to expand right-to-die legislation. However, this issue is too little discussed in the public sphere.

What do you think?

Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.