Professor, priest debate assisted suicide

by Bei Hu

The issue of physician-assisted suicide confronts more than the question of who should determine when life should end. It also brings ideological and practical considerations into play.
David Mayo, a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota- Duluth, and Father Paul Rospond, director of the Catholic Student Center, debated the questions of physician-assisted suicide Friday night at Coffman Memorial Union.
The debate, co-sponsored by the center and the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, drew an audience of about 40 University students, staff and community members.
Mayo is a member of many groups that advocate an individual’s right to suicide. These groups include the American Association of Suicidology, the Death with Dignity Education Center, the Midwest Hemlock Society and the Center for Biomedical Ethics on the University campus.
Mayo began his argument by laying out qualifications for acceptable assisted suicide. He said a candidate must be a psychologically competent adult who is terminally ill, suffers great pain and who has a fixed desire to die. Before the suicide is carried out, Mayo said, all treatment options should be explored, and the person must be fully informed of treatment consequences.
In addition, he said, there should be no external pressure or coercion.
Mayo appealed to human compassion and the right to self-determination in his opening argument.
“The country is founded on the notion of liberty,” he said. “People have the right to terminate their own pain.”
Approaching the issue from a religious perspective, Rospond dismissed the notion of an individual’s right to suicide. “For us (Christians), life is a gift from God,” he said. “So it’s not a matter of human choice or human convenience.”
Mayo said the due process clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment can be interpreted as stating that the government should not interfere with personal decisions such as life or death, barring a compelling interest of the government to do so.
“The state does have an interest in preserving life,” he said. “But this interest diminishes as you get closer to the end of life.”
While acknowledging people’s right to privacy, Rospond said such rights must be balanced with obligations toward the larger community. He said legalizing assisted suicide would have far-reaching implications.
“Society would come to look at suicide as good, humane, as dignified,” he said. “What would it be like living in a society where life is so devalued?”
Mayo criticized the Catholic position, which tolerates accidental death from treatment to alleviate pain, but opposes intentional physician-assisted suicide.
“It seems to me that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is currently drawn in the mind of the physician who has no checks on this,” he said.
Rospond said legalizing assisted suicide would further deteriorate doctor-patient relationships, which he said are already suffering in a managed-care system.
“If killing me is an option,” he said, “how can I trust the doctor to do all he can to heal me?”
Rospond said if assisted suicide becomes a socially acceptable practice, there is the danger of doctors and families abusing it. He said the criteria for assisted suicides are currently vague, and they could be further relaxed if the practice gained legitimacy.
Mayo said, in response to a question about applying his arguments to his own life, that he would contemplate assisted suicide if it did not violate his major obligations to other people.
Rospond replied that he would suffer to the very end. “We find in suffering a school for life,” he said.
Rospond then cited Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago. Before his death from cancer on Nov. 14, the cardinal wrote to U.S. Supreme Court justices and urged them not to recognize the right to assisted suicide.
“Creating a new right to assisted suicide,” Bernardin wrote, “would endanger society and send the false signal that a less-than-perfect life is not worth living.”