Wednesday, January 18, 2006

on doctor-assisted suicide, the Hippocratic Oath, and dying with dignity

There is something very disturbing when the citizens of a state pass a law that allows terminally ill patients to end their lives with the assistance of doctors. The people of the state of Oregon did just that in 1997 by passing a referendum called the "Death with Dignity Act."

There is something very disturbing when the highest court in the land upholds this law and says that doctors may continue to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients upon request. The U.S. Supreme Court did just that yesterday.

There is something very disturbing when this law and this court compel doctors to violate their own oath.

I am referring to the Hippocratic Oath, the classic version of which reads:

“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect….In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.”

Even the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath preserves the belief that doctors must not take the place of God when making decisions concerning life or death. The modern version reads:

“Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”

So is this oath worthless these days? Is it just a mere relic? I think not. And I know doctors out there who still believe that the words of this oath are a solid guide as they pursue their art.

Troubling and misguided sentiments give rise to things like this misguided law in Oregon and even the Supreme Court ruling. What are some of these sentiments?

First, there is no such thing as a “right to die.” It’s not there. It’s neither in the U.S. Declaration of Independence nor in the Constitution.

And frankly I do not think that our nation’s founding fathers---as they wrote the words “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration---had doctor-assisted suicide in mind. Now I am no constitutional expert, but I have a mighty strong feeling they didn’t mean what the folks in Oregon think.

Second, the sentiment that “dying with dignity” involves taking one’s own life in the face of painful, terminal illness is misguided.

As a priest, as I meet and counsel patients suffering from terminal illness, I have seen what dying with dignity means. Being surrounded with loving people around you; being supported emotionally, spritiually, physically by people who care as one endures a painful illness; knowing that one is not alone---these things make for “dying with dignity.”

As a person of faith, I will add that dying with dignity also means dying with faith and with the sure knowledge that God is the giver of life who longs to give comfort, healing, and eternal life to all who trust in Him.

This is dying with dignity.

Powered by Blogger