Last week in Washington state a 66-year-old woman with terminal cancer made history as the first person to undergo physician-assisted suicide since that state legalized the practice in November of 2008.
Proponents of legalized suicide celebrated Washington's approval of this policy as a victory for the "death with dignity" movement. These suicide advocates, in keeping with the rhetorical tactic of their ideological cousins in the pro-abortion movement, equate "dignity" with "choice." Unfortunately, as with the abortion debate, the "choice" rhetoric of the right-to-die movement eclipses critical moral and ethical questions which ought to be at the forefront of the debate.
Is suicide really a way to honor life and preserve dignity? What are the social and cultural implications of normalizing the "right to die?" Will voluntary physician-assisted suicide give way to involuntary physician-assisted suicide where doctors decide whether their patients would be better off dead? Will the "right" to suicide be transmogrified into a "duty" to commit suicide? Will the elderly who consume more than they produce be deemed "resource hogs" that have a duty to die and get out of the way? In an age of scarce economic resources, will the critically ill or the handicapped or the demented be viewed as expendable by their younger, healthier counterparts? How will the medical profession be transformed if those who are trained to cure are given a license to kill? These and many other questions should be asked and answered before we decide it's okay to encourage terminally-ill persons to choose self-destruction in the name of dignity.
But we won't get answers if we allow this debate to be defined solely in terms of the euphemistic "right to choose." Indeed, these questions won't even be asked.