Proponents of assisted suicide frequently argue that it will only be reserved for those who are terminally ill and dying, who have less than six months to live. This, they claim, will be the safeguard against abuses; however, the line is continually redrawn, with the guidelines becoming increasingly more permissive. Case in point: two scientists, who wrote an op-ed for Fox News, are now arguing that people with Alzheimer’s disease should be allowed to qualify for assisted suicide.
The op-ed was written by Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, with a doctorate in organic chemistry, and Henry I. Miller, a doctor and molecular biologist, and the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology. They begin by bemoaning the fact that people with Alzheimer’s are not able to currently choose assisted suicide for themselves, pointing out the current restrictions on the practice of euthanasia. Patients must have six months or less to live, be mentally competent, give multiple consents, and undergo several waiting periods. This, they say, is a problem.
Most people with Alzheimer’s live for an approximate four to eight years after their diagnosis. “By the end, people with Alzheimer’s barely resemble the people they once were. Many do not recognize their loved ones, think they are living in a different time period, and don’t know where they are,” they wrote. “Anyone who has spent time in a nursing home has seen what this terrible disease does to people. So it is not surprising that some people who have just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease wish to end their lives before the deterioration becomes terminal.”
But because of assisted suicide laws, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s have far longer than just six months to live. By the time the disease is terminal, they are no longer mentally competent. This is a problem, the scientists write, because the patients are just “too healthy” to choose to die.
“If the goal of physician-assisted suicide is to prevent unnecessary suffering, then why are Alzheimer’s patients and their families forced to suffer for years with no recourse, while people with a shorter-duration terminal disease that don’t impair their thinking have the right to choose their own fates? Does this make logical or medical sense?” they asked. “We propose that this conundrum can be solved with an advance directive stating the individual’s wishes before the person is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.”
“There are innumerable formulas that one could devise,” they continued. “For example, the criteria might include: certification of the diagnosis of advanced Alzheimer’s disease by a neurologist or gerontologist; consistent loss of awareness of person, place and time by the Alzheimer’s patient; and the inability to carry out activities of daily living (bathing, eating, taking medications, and so on).”
They concluded by writing that we should not force people to “lose dignity at the end of life” if they do not want to — as if living with a disease, disability, or mental illness is undignified. And it is this that reveals the problem with this line of thinking. One’s life does not only hold dignity if one is young and strong and healthy. People with disabilities, people with Alzheimer’s, people with cancer — they all still have dignity. This also reaffirms the fears of people considering assisted suicide: that they are burdens, that their lives are not worth living, that their families would rather see them dead than live with their illness.
Consider the difference between the point of view of these scientists — who insinuate that a life with Alzheimer’s is not worth living — and that of Larry Peterson, whose wife Marty had the disease. Peterson called himself blessed to be able to care for his wife. “I was mentally worn out, as I regularly am these days, but as I looked at her I could see that the innocence of childhood had come back from an unknown place and once again embraced her,” he said, even though he knew she would not remember anything of their days together each morning. His love and determination to care for her through the illness should serve as a model for how we should treat people with terminal illness, no matter how difficult or deteriorating the disease may be.
Pain and suffering is not something that anyone wants to experience, but it does not rob someone of their dignity. And illness, even one as difficult as Alzheimer’s disease, does not mean someone should qualify for an early death.