Assisted Suicide: A Dangerous Loss of Relevance

Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, were, as I’ve previously highlighted, brought to the public interest primarily in the 1990’s. Thus far, this was the “golden age” of assisted suicide discussion: this was the era of Dr. Death, a plethora of medical research on attitudes towards the acts, and public debate, evidenced by the prominence of discussion of assisted suicide on television, newspapers, books, and the medical community.

Fast forward; here we are in 2016, and the majority of individuals don’t even know the difference between physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. Indeed, most people probably think they are the same thing! So what happened? Well to be fair, physician assisted suicide was the primary focus during the rise of the topic of assisted suicide in public dialogue. Individuals not knowing the difference between euthanasia and PAS can be excused in that sense. But why is this not something lawmakers, journalists, and non-partisan think tanks focus on anymore today? Sure, there is legislation still being passed in regards to assisted suicide: California just enacted a law allowing PAS, and other states recently voted on the measure in the presidential election. But assisted suicide is not discussed nearly as much as other (may I point out — equally as morally ambiguous) as abortion, drug legalization, gun control, and immigration. These are the topics in which make your annual family dinners deeply uncomfortable — assisted suicide is no longer among them. Why has it fallen out of the public scope?

It is not as if assisted suicide has been “settled”. Indeed, the reason that the aforementioned topics are so vigorously debated is because there is often no hardline, “right” or “wrong” answer to the questions that are posed. The same is true with assisted suicide. Despite legislation being passed, there are still strong feelings from both sides in regard to its legalization.

Is it because we as a society believe that assisted suicide is widely endorsed? After all, more states continue to pass laws allowing it in one form or another. But the evidence of today points to the fact that, no, we don’t all agree on this. Polls show us that Americans still don’t agree about which situations assisted suicide is justified. Indeed, most Americans only tend to endorse the use of assisted suicide in abstract, hypothetical situations. But when it comes down to making the decision for us in real, end of life scenario, we tend to have second thoughts.

Even more ironically is that more and more patients are seeking to utilize assisted suicide in one way or another, yet this appears to be happening “quietly”, only within the realm of clinical contexts where the same difficult decisions that were debated publicly in the 1990’s were being made.

So what can we make of this? Along with being a legitimate moral and ethical issue, there is increasing demand by those who truly need a collective, societal answer (patients). The fact that it has fallen out of the public interest and dialogue does not mean that this issue is without importance — it simply means that the public focus has shifted elsewhere. But, it is about time that we need the focus to go back to include assisted suicide. This is more relevant of an issue than ever with many individuals from the baby boomer generation now reaching their eldest years. With issues such as these which are both moral and social issues, a collective public dialogue is needed to establish where a particular country, such as the United States, stands on the issue. Such a position must be supported by legislation. Otherwise, those who may be in the most suffering or facing the most difficult decisions in their life will be paralyzed due to our indifference to the problem.