I have been employed as a pediatric oncology nurse in the state of Washington for over three years. This seemingly innocuous statement is crucially important for two reasons. First, and most importantly, my role as a nurse causes me to witness on a weekly basis the ravaging effects that cancer, and the treatment for cancer, has on the human body. In many cases, I watch as our modern day treatments successfully defeat the cancer, either by curing it or causing it to go into remission. But there are other cases – those cases where cancer obtains the final victory – that cause me to witness human suffering at its worst. Secondly, as a resident of Washington State, I was subjected to a vote on Public Initiative 1000, also known as the “Aid-In-Dying Initiative,” in November of 2008. This particular vote regarding physician-assisted suicide (PAS), as with any controversial subject, was not an easy one to cast. I am a deeply committed Christian employed as a nurse – a member of two groups that tend to argue against PAS. However, my personal experiences, both those described above, and others I will discuss later, caused me to cast my vote with strong conviction. In regards to physician-assisted suicide, my position now is as it was then: Physician-assisted suicide should be legalized, but only with proper restrictions, provisions, and oversight.
This issue, as already noted above, is a rather controversial one – but why? I believe there are two components that make this a difficult issue to resolve: the finality of death itself, and advances in medical care. Many of the major issues in today’s society – PAS, euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, just to name a few – can trace their roots to the finality of death. As a general rule, for whatever reasons individuals may hold dear, humanity wants to avoid death at all costs. It is this drive for immortality that has lead to advancements in medical care that has produced our current “dilemma.” Bill Colby, in his article “Let’s Talk About Dying,” describes the dilemma well: “For most of recorded time, illness came, nature took its course, and doctors had no real tools to stop that progression. People had no fear of multiple rounds of debilitating treatments or surgeries to thwart disease and no fear of being hooked to machines that prolonged their dying, because such machines didn’t exist” (6). Now that these medical options exist, Gilbert Meilaender points out, “…intervening to benefit and preserve life means keeping a person alive for what may well be a long period of deterioration and a yet worse death” (20). Herein lies the paradox. Our quest for prolonged life in the face of a terminal illness is producing prolonged death. Often times, this prolonged death is painful and filled with suffering. This is where PAS becomes a necessary option for some people.
Many opponents of legalized PAS object on the basis of the “slippery slope” argument. They argue that once physician-assisted suicide is legalized, it opens the door to a path that leads to the ultimate undesired destination for the society – active euthanasia of unwilling persons. To be clear, the generally accepted definition of PAS is “when a patient is given a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that the patient gives to him/herself to end his or her life (emphasis added)” (Stewart 131). This is in stark contrast to euthanasia. Bernice Packford, 95, proponent of assisted suicide, said it best: “In euthanasia, somebody is doing it to you” (qtd. in MacQueen 19). Being Jewish, she goes on to acknowledge that the term euthanasia “has ugly connotations of Nazi medical experiments and death camps” (19). This image, I believe, is what comes to the minds of some proponents of the “slippery slope” argument. This, however, is not clear evidence for the existence of a “slippery slope.” As Harry Lesser points out, “The Nazis did not begin by allowing voluntary assisted suicide… with the aim of relieving...
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