The Hidden Debate: Privacy and the End of Life

by Matthew Raley

For the second time this year, California legislators aretrying to legalize assisted suicide. After the bill failed in June, Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) reintroduced it in a special session devoted to healthcare financing.

The bill was originally framed as a response to the suicide of Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon after her terminal cancer diagnosis because assisted suicide is illegal in California. An individual, supporters say, has the right to determine when his or her life ends as a purely private matter.

A debate is hidden behind this issue. What is privacy? Is there really a zone where your actions affect no one but yourself, and where no one has a right to “interfere?”

Advocates for the elderly and the disabled argue that assisted suicide is not a private matter. Legalizing it would create an incentive to promote suicide for the weakest patients, whose care is most expensive. They point to the sinister track record of Belgium, where the law first recognized a suicide right for adults under narrow circumstances, but now allows doctors to euthanize children. Not assist in their suicide. Euthanize. With their “consent,” of course.

What starts as an adult’s right to make “private” decisions morphs into something horrific.

The reason is that this supposed zone of privacy doesn’t exist. First, if I take my own life, I am not the only person affected. Suicide affects families, friends, colleagues, entire communities.

Second, this fraudulent privacy merely creates a space around the end of life in which probing questions are silenced. The elderly patient “requested” suicide. Done. Prescribe the pills. We will not question the role of a financially interested adult son, or a callous social worker, or an activist nurse pushing an agenda. We won’t consider those factors even though we know that medical decisions involve many participants, that patients can and do get manipulated, and that healthcare financing plays an increasingly powerful role in care.

Draw the curtain of “privacy” over that discussion, and you have euthanasia in Belgium. The same curtain hides families and boyfriends who bully pregnant women into having abortions. Until recently, it shielded Planned Parenthood’s sale of body parts.

Eggman’s bill will likely stall again. Resistance to fake privacy in California signals that we may still have the courage to defy the culture of death.