Here's Something: Nothing dignified about assisted suicide

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Both houses of the Maine Legislature last week narrowly passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients the right to end their lives.

Supporters of LD 1313 (that’s an unlucky number, isn’t it?) call it the “Death with Dignity” bill. It faces additional votes in the Legislature and then goes to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk. It’s unclear how she’ll vote.

Since the days of now-deceased Dr. Jack Kevorkian, we’ve been debating the merits of physician-assisted suicide. Fast-forward almost three decades and the idea of assisted suicide has taken hold, and now Maine might join seven other states in allowing physicians to prescribe drugs to end life.

Words matter in politics and sides choose their words carefully when trying to sway the public. In this case, we’re faced with two phrases that sum up the two sides of the issue: Death with dignity and assisted suicide.

Supporters use “death with dignity” ad nauseam to describe LD 1313. It’s alliterative and effortlessly rolls off the tongue. It’s poetry, really. And it purposefully avoids the word “suicide,” from which we instinctively repel because it is the end of all hope and progress.

At first glance, “death with dignity” seems a fitting description when someone coping with terminal disease and its associated pain decides to end it all with physician-prescribed pills. But is it really a dignified act? Is taking a pill to end one’s life filled with dignity?

I’m not sure what dignity has to do with it. There is no death with dignity, except when one dies so another can live. We think of the brave soldier who falls on a grenade to save others. That’s a dignified death.

Suicide is anything but dignified, because that person’s hopes and dreams are snuffed forever. The associated physical decay triggered by death is tragic and disgusting, far from dignified. It’s understandable why a sufferer would want to end their pain, but don’t call it dignified. Reserve that word for the rare cases that merit it. It’s assisted suicide. Or label it a mercy killing.

Choosing when the death process starts is also not dignified. Choosing life, rather than death, is dignified. Suffering through pain can be dignified. Giving up is not dignified.

Many hope for death to come during a peaceful night’s sleep. Hardly anyone, however, receives such a painless end. My dad died of a massive heart attack in a YMCA locker room. I’m sure that was terribly painful, and I hate to envision it.

My mother’s fiance died painfully from lymphoma. The once-strong and supremely good man became gaunt, hoarse and weak and required a home nurse to dress oozing wounds. This was a tragic end to a dignified man’s life.

His legacy of dignity, however, didn’t come from choosing to end his suffering, which he never would have considered. His death was undignified. His dignity came from how he lived.

Webster’s definition of dignity perfectly described this man: He was worthy of high esteem. He had high repute, stateliness and nobleness. He had proper pride and self-respect. Despite severe pain at the end, he used that time to stay positive and help others through the pain they were feeling with his sad demise. That’s real dignity. He thought of others.

I’m always skeptical of those who use linguistic subterfuge to lobby their cause. Those employing the term “death with dignity” are doing just that when lobbying for assisted suicide. Here’s hoping Gov. Mills sees through the Legislature’s misguided – and undignified – political tactics.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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