As support for assisted suicide grows, it is not unusual to hear people say that they would choose to have “death with dignity” should they be diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness. While feelings of hopelessness and despair in such a situation is certainly understandable, that doesn’t mean that assisted suicide is the answer. The question is, how should we help people in such a situation?
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recently commissioned a study on MS and assisted suicide, but focused on the need to treat the root cause and prevent people with MS from committing suicide.
In 1993, the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers created a massive patient registry to adequately capture the real-life experience of living with MS. As multiple states have either already legalized assisted suicide or are considering legalization, researchers set out to discover what people with MS thought about ending their lives. 7,534 people responded, and of those, a whopping 65 percent said they would definitely or probably consider assisted suicide.
While the study authors stressed that more research is needed, they pointed out that instead of encouraging assisted suicide, there are likely underlying factors that should be addressed.
The statement read:
[I]t’s important to understand what factors may contribute to considering physician assisted suicide. For example, depression in its various forms is one of the most common symptoms of MS. In fact, studies have suggested that clinical depression – the most severe form – is more frequent among people with MS than it is in the general population or in many other chronic illnesses.
This study’s findings related to people who were depressed in particular raises the importance of adequately diagnosing and treating depression in people with MS to improve their quality of life and happiness. Other possible factors contributing to a consideration of physician assisted suicide may be related to a need for additional support or for a greater feeling of control over one’s life – either of which might be filled in other ways.
This is the correct outlook to have. Studies have found that people seeking assisted suicide are often struggling with hopelessness, fear, and depression. Too often, assisted suicide advocates will fight for the “right” of others to kill themselves as opposed to treating the problems that are causing persons to want to end their lives. This is unfortunate, because when the depression is treated, the request for assisted suicide is usually withdrawn.
Dr. Herbert Hendin, author of “Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and Assisted Suicide,” argued that instead of allowing patients to simply kill themselves, mental illness should be treated. “Mental illness raises the suicide risk even more than physical illness,” he said. “Nearly 95 percent of those who kill themselves have been shown to have a diagnosable psychiatric illness in the months preceding suicide. The majority suffer from depression that can be treated.”
When a healthy person says he wants to commit suicide, it’s considered to be a tragedy that should be avoided at all costs. That person will be given support, resources, and everything possible to keep the him from killing himself. But if that person is elderly, ill, or disabled, suddenly, that logic is turned onto its head. No longer is suicide a tragedy to be avoided no matter what; it’s now “death with dignity.”
People who have chronic or terminal illnesses deserve better than this. It’s not their deaths that should have dignity, but their lives. No one should be told that it is better to die, regardless of the circumstances. And as the National MS Society points out, the answer to a request for assisted suicide should be to treat the underlying cause… not to snuff out a vulnerable person’s life.