Diana Rehm, NPR host, recently assisted her husband, who suffered greatly from Parkinson’s disease, in dying by cooperating with his decision to starve himself.
After his death, Rehm said, “I feel the way that John had to die was just totally inexcusable. … It was not right.”
Rehm, who is an advocate of assisted suicide (or, as she says, the right to die with dignity) is protesting the nature of her husband’s death. She said that because their family doctor didn’t provide the late Mr. Rehm with alternative ways to die, her husband was forced to starve himself. She is now working with “Compassion and Choices,” a group advocating legalization of assisted suicide.
It’s easy to feel so much sympathy for the suffering that we forget that there’s more at stake in the “death with dignity” discussion than the license to make a decision.
By saying that the presence of suffering makes life unendurable or not worth living, we are choosing a sterile version of living that takes away both the brightest joys and the deepest sorrows. It will gradually become an expectation that anyone who is suffering at the hands of illness or deformity – or, anyone who is causing others to suffer due to an illness or deformity – will die voluntarily because a life that is difficult is not worth living.
As a culture, we are saying we see no inherent goodness in being alive other than to enjoy the good times. By associating the presence of suffering with death, we’re saying that the point of life is to die. Anyone who has ever encountered another person in relationship can tell you that this is not the case.
Death, ultimately, is not the point of living.
Granted, no one considering assisted suicide as a means to escape his pain is thinking that simply about his situation. That person is suffering. He is seeking consolation and healing. This is, ideally, where community comes in. This is where the family is essential: the love and community found in walking with loved ones through their suffering brings a deeper meaning to life than the sterile and shallow pursuit of pleasure that pop culture sets up as the goal of all human action.
The very meaning of the word “compassion” is “to suffer with,” whereas “Compassion & Choices” advocates the opposite of the definition.
To truly suffer with people afflicted with a debilitating disease means to walk with them daily. It means using your own hands to do what they cannot, even if it’s painful or disgusting. It means going out of your way to brighten their days and remind them that they are loved and that life is still worth living, even if it isn’t always as full as it could be.
The fullness of human dignity is recognized in loving the weak and the hurting.
We cannot purge the world of mortality. Enabling people to choose to die without fear is a cry from the abyss of our own humanity. We want to forget that we are human, that we are dependent and that we end. That we are damaged and flawed and that the reality of nature is that there is suffering in the world.