The assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society) doesn't want you to believe that assisted suicide by the terminally ill is really suicide. The organization's "language kit," designed to help assisted suicide advocates promote their agenda in the media, complains that using the accurate and descriptive word "suicide" to describe self-killing by the dying is a pejorative term that paints "terminally-ill patients in the same negative light as terrorist bombers."
This is a ridiculous assertion. First, to state that a terminally ill person who dies after intentionally swallowing a drug overdose has "committed suicide" is not to equate him with Osama bin Laden; it is to describe accurately the cause of death. But more importantly, to claim that the dying, unlike other suicidal persons, don't really commit suicide when they kill themselves, is to imply strongly that the terminally ill are as good as dead anyway.
This may be the crucial point in the whole assisted suicide debate. What these advocates don't understand is that dying isn't dead: It is living. Indeed, as hospice workers and pastors can attest, the time of dying can be one of the most important and worthwhile stages of life that people ever experience.
My friend Bob proves the point. When I met Bob as a hospice volunteer about eight years ago, he was in his mid-40s and completely disabled from ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. As we became good friends, he explained to me that he had become suicidal after receiving his devastating diagnosis. At that time, he told me, "If I could have gone to Jack Kevorkian, I would have."
I asked whether his suicidal despair had been caused by becoming progressively disabled. Bob had always been athletic and he found it very hard to lose his physical capacities, he said. But he became suicidal because he felt abandoned by his community. As he put it: "First, my friends stopped visiting me. Then, my friends stopped calling me. Then, they stopped calling my wife, and I felt like a token presence in the world."
After two years of utter despair, Bob told me that he "came out of the fog" and was very glad to be alive. He resented the notion that because he had a terrible illness some people advocated that his death be facilitated, whereas other suicidal people were to receive suicide prevention. Indeed, he was so offended by the assisted suicide movement that he authored an opinion column for the February 19, 1997 San Francisco Chronicle, in which he wrote: [Accessible here by scrolling down: ]
Euthanasia advocates believe they are doing people like me a favor. They are not. The negative emotions toward the terminally ill and disabled generated by their advocacy is actually at the expense of the "dying" and their families and friends…What we, the terminally ill, need is exactly the opposite—to realize how important our lives are. And our loved ones, friends, and, indeed, society need to help us feel that we are loved and appreciated unconditionally.
Bob received this kind of inclusion from his family and eventually from the members of a new church he joined when some missionaries came to his door. He spent the last months of his life enjoying his wife and three daughters, making money for his family with on-line investing, and collecting art. He died peacefully in his sleep, having achieved a truly "good death" in a state of transcendence and calm acceptance.
Bob's experience was not unusual. Dr. Ira Byock, the former president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and author of the splendid, Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life, put it this way when I interviewed him a few years ago: "Dying is a very scary, extraordinary time of life that requires adjustments and changes in expectations. But so do other times of change, such as marriage, having a child, or losing a spouse. What I have seen and know to be true is that people can exert a sense of mastery over this stage of life."
As Bob did. And his story reminds us vividly that there is a vast difference between "wanting" to die out of fear of losing dignity and worries about being a burden—reasons usually cited by people wanting assisted suicide in Oregon—and being "ready" to die at peace, with calm acceptance when one comes to the natural end of life's journey.
Or, as Bob so beautifully summarized the point in his article: "In my view, the pro-euthanasia followers' posture is a great threat to the foundation upon which all life is based, and that is hope. I exhort everyone: Life is worth living, and life is worth receiving. I know. I live it every day."