The following was presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Health back in September. I never got around to posting it here, and given the stupendous news yesterday that physician-assisted suicide has died in committee for the year, it seemed a good occasion to do so.
Testimony in Opposition to H.1194/S.1225 (Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide)
Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, my name is David Franks, and I am chairman of the board of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. I am trained as a philosopher and theologian, and it is as an expert in social ethics that I speak to you today.
Normalizing suicide means the death of solidarity.
Our choices are not made in isolation. To be worthy of a republic, each of us citizens is obliged to recognize both the conditions and the ramifications of our choices, and to think deeply what freedom really means.
There are all kinds of good reasons to want to die. Above all, there is the simple exigence of escaping screaming psychological or physical pain.
And yet, until the day before yesterday, we have, rightly, removed suicide from the menu of choices that we allow our loved ones to contemplate in dealing with crises. Despite the reality of even intractable psychological pain, we have insisted that every person remain at his or her post in life.
The real problem is that this cannot be done alone.
Normalizing suicide is a radical way of denying the claims of human solidarity. It means pretending that the spiritual asphyxiation of the desperate, there, right next to us, though somewhat out of sight, is none of our business.
Not compassion, but savagery, makes peace with suicide.
Physician-assisted suicide is suicide.
And the specific kind of suicide that it is makes it even more damaging to the body politic. It forces our laws (and that means our communal self-understanding) into renouncing, yet further, the most basic demands of human solidarity.
As a social reality, physician-assisted suicide does not mean putting some person out of his or her misery. It is, by its logic, putting someone out of OUR misery. It is eugenic libertarianism red in tooth and claw.
Being human in history is not something else than helping each other stand at our posts even when it is excruciating. Being human means taking care, or it means nothing at all.
The school of care is suffering. We must learn never to cease caring. We must seek to absorb the suffering of others by our unremitting presence to them, in their agony, and affirm the absorption of our suffering by others.
Solidarity isn’t doing very well these days. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would radicalize that trend, the trend to leave behind the poor and the addicted and the refugee and the medically dependent and the elderly and the hopeless and the forgotten—all of us who might be losers in the power games of the world.
Our Commonwealth is famously progressive. Please allow me to bring to mind some basic principles of progressive social theory.
If someone on the margins of life dies, it seems unseemly for any self-respecting progressive not to ask, “What social class interest has just been advanced?”
If a woman feels as if she doesn’t want to be a burden anymore, what misogynistic conditioning might be involved? (Think Marcuse and introjected heteronomy.)
If the poor and those suffering from mental illness, including depression, and those who are medically dependent, are given this “choice” as a legitimate medical option, how is it that social masters aren’t benefiting?
Our choices have social ramifications. Are we required or not, as citizens, to consider what effect our “choices” have on the social order?
If the legalization of our choice turns doctors into killers, is that something we are required to consider?
If the legalization of our choice commits the social body to the normalization of suicide, thereby exposing all the vulnerable, is that something we are required to consider?
If the state, and indeed insurance companies, are handed this new instrument of biopower, power that has always been abused, is that something we are required to consider?
Is such a question intrinsic to our humanity or not? Are our choices bound by solidarity, or not?