"Assisted suicide" is both oxymoron and euphemism. Suicide is an intensely personal, individual and solitary act. The "assistant" does not put his life at stake. It more accurately ought to be called "state-sanctioned murder." That's where last week's Supreme Court decision puts it (stripped of euphemism).
Just as there are doctors who won't perform abortions, there are doctors who won't "assist" in suicide. The Supreme Court majority said, with a certain delicacy, their decision was "a very narrow one" based on the right of Oregon to decide that doctors may write prescriptions for lethal pills for patients reckoned to be dying, and the federal government cannot deprive such "assistants" from writing prescriptions under the Controlled Substances Act. The dissenters -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- said such lethal "medicine" in their view does not serve a "legitimate medical purpose."
The narrow technicality of the decision, however, does not go to the authentic heart(less) issue. The morality of care for the sick and aging in our society bears witness to how we see ourselves and the world we want our children to inhabit. How we answer this question tells us more about how we live than how we die, and tells us, literally, who cares.
We once depended on religion and laws of the spirit to determine how we put science and technology to use. That's difficult today when secularism has been elevated to the status of religion, reality has become virtual, and technology drives our sensibilities about what it means to be human. Consider, for a moment, what some call, without irony, "nurturing technology."
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies the psychological and social impact of technology. She tells of something she watched at a Boston nursing home. An elderly woman, abandoned by a son who once visited her but no longer does, became miserable and depressed. Paro, the "therapeutic robot," was assigned to visit the old woman in the son's place. The robot makes "eye contact" with the woman and responds to her touch as she projects her feelings onto him. "Yes, you're sad, aren't you," she tells Paro. "It's tough out there. Yes, it's hard." She strokes Paro's mechanical head, as if attempting to comfort herself by showing concern for Paro.
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