On Saturday, November 18 I attended the Caring Not Killing conference, a gathering of those opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, at Biola University in Los Angeles. Assisted suicide is becoming legal in more and more jurisdictions. Not only is the increased acceptance a problem in itself, but we are seeing troubling problems in places where it has been legal for some time: reports of patients pressured to commit assisted suicide, or patients allowed to commit assisted suicide even if they are not terminally ill. These practices are grave threats to civilization and liberty, and no political party wants to speak out. The American Solidarity Party, fortunately, condemns assisted suicide and euthanasia strongly in its platform, but has not focused on these issues as much as I would wish.
The arguments presented at the conference can be divided into three major types; Christian, medical, and disability rights. From a Christian perspective, assisted suicide is the taking of a life unnaturally. Put most simply, because man is made in the image of God, it is immoral to end a human life prematurely. All of the speakers who made arguments from Christian ethics also spoke out in favor of the rest of the pro-life movement, and there were numerous organizations in the display room linking opposition to assisted suicide with opposition to abortion, which is also the taking of a life prematurely.
Yet, while for many of us, Christian truth guides our final decisions on these matters, the movement against assisted suicide needs the insights of those grounded in practical medical professionalism. The speakers with medical experience, most of whom professed a Christian background, presented indictments of unethical practices now common to the medical profession, including hospices providing substandard care and defrauding the government of funds meant for patients, and hospital emergency rooms turning off life-saving care when there was still reasonable hope of saving the patient. The medical speakers also tried their best to dispel concerns that patients are being kept alive by machines only to preserve life for as long as possible out of a misguided quest to avoid death at all costs.
Some wonder whether medical technologies, by keeping patients alive artificially when they would have died a more peaceful natural death, are incentivizing people to consider assisted suicide in order to avoid increased suffering. The medical professionals at this conference argued that human bodies generally die fairly quickly when, in some unquantifiable sense, they are ready to. Furthermore, they can recover to a surprising extent, even if not completely, with the right medical treatments, often when hope seems lost. Determining the specific point at which care will end is not easy, either for the average person creating a living will, or for a medical professional, but the medical community must remember its oath to do no harm, and return to a spirit of care for each patient as a person in the image of God.
This ethic of care for each individual patient, especially those persevering amidst suffering, brings us to the disability rights arguments. When some claim that assisted suicide prevents suffering, groups such as Not Dead Yet reply that even in the midst of suffering, life is worth living. When people are allowed to choose to end their suffering, inevitably others will be pressured to make that same choice, which essentially becomes a civil rights violation. Like the Christian theologians and medical professionals, disability rights activists would like to see a revitalization of the local community as a safe space for the disabled, and a mobilization of volunteers to help the disabled in varieties of ways, especially independent living centers, that improve their living conditions.
Disability rights activists, though, were more likely than other speakers at the conference to argue that federal programs, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, are necessary to protect the disabled, and somewhat alleviate the pressure they might otherwise face to partake in assisted suicide. Whereas much of the Christian Right and some of the pro-life movement arrive at the conclusion that such programs do more harm than good because of their inefficiency and their lack of pro-life commitments, disability rights activists see the need to protect these programs no matter their shortcomings or additional costs. In critiquing these programs, and the progressive politicians who keep them running, we need to understand their immediate importance to the disabled.
Would disability rights activists who do not adhere to a conservative Christian perspective ever be likely to fit into the American Solidarity Party? There are some who adopt an anti-abortion position, through secular pro-life and Consistent Life perspectives. However, it became clear based on my experience at the conference that many tend to be rather politically progressive on social issues, except end of life care. In speaking to one representative, we discussed that even though disagreements on LGBT issues have the potential to strain the coalition between disability rights activists and socially conservative Christians, the disability rights activists are often also unwilling to commit to a strict anti-abortion position. While they are concerned that women might be pressured into abortions, many fundamentally accept pro-choice arguments on abortion if safeguards are in place.
Despite these disagreements, Christian Right and politically progressive disability rights activists have succeeded in forming coalitions. In what may be a good lesson for many of us, it is telling that they do so by avoiding interference in each other’s organizations, and with an acknowledgement that their efforts are, for the most part, separate, yet also complementary.
Those of us who adhere to principles of solidarian politics and Christian democracy can hope to build bridges between the different movements opposing assisted suicide by further examining the ways in which legal challenges, governmental programs, reform of the medical industry, and efforts to build local community can stop the tragic practice of prematurely ending lives.