The first death clinic recently opened in California, offering to do away with patients for a sum of $2,000. The doctor who opened the clinic sees himself as providing a vital public service.
Lonny Shavelson left his medical practice two years ago to explore and document gender fluidity. Now he has started this new business in the hope that men and women who are tempted to commit suicide using unreliable methods like heights and firearms will instead come to him for succor. He says he won’t kill just anyone—“I want them to tell me why.”
California is the fourth state to legalize physician-prescribed suicide. It is, after all, only the logical conclusion of a growing nationwide trend to consider killing a legitimate medical treatment. Classic Hippocratic medicine, the centuries-old basis and guide of Western medicine, flatly rejects death-dealing as therapy.
Instead, physicians are called to “keep the sick from harm and injustice,” lengthen life, treat disease, and ameliorate pain. But in these days of excellent pain management and psychiatric care, when physicians have achieved a previously undreamed-of ability to keep pain at bay and depression and anxiety under control, suicide is being effectively promoted as a compassionate alternative to treatment and support.
Suicide Corrupts Family and Medical Relationships
Natural and organic may be all the rage for food selection, but people are becoming increasingly comfortable with the deeply unnatural act of suicide. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles put it well: “We are crossing a line—from being a society that cares for those who are aging and sick to a society that kills those whose suffering we can no longer tolerate.”
The potential for harm and abuse is huge, as Ryan Anderson details in a 2015 paper. Disability rights advocates justly fear these laws endanger the weak and vulnerable. People who need expensive and resource-intensive care will instead be offered and encouraged to take advantage of suicide, which offers a cheap, quick “fix.” The sick, afraid to burden their families, will feel bound to end things quickly. As the death-as-medicine mentality becomes accepted, patient-killing will spread to include the depressed and chronically ill, as it has in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
These laws corrupt the doctor-patient relationship and transform the healer of humans into the “dispenser of death,” as Dr. Leon Kass has said. Shavelson is impatient with physicians who are not comfortable with this. He says, “I don’t understand when being uncomfortable became a reason not to do something in medicine.” He equates prescribing and assisting in someone’s suicide with the moment when a patient refuses yet another round of chemotherapy or more dialysis. He goes on, “The best answer I can get is that it is a difference of mechanics.”
Shavelson’s grasp of ethics is pitiful. Caring for patients, ameliorating their pain, and attending to them faithfully while nature takes its inevitable course is not morally equal to being a crucial party to their destruction. All of us physicians have had occasion to respect the decision of one of our patients to refuse treatment. Sometimes this has caused us sorrow. Few of us have helped a patient to die. Doing so would cause us guilt. We are, after all, not technicians but practitioners. We don’t practice medicine to fulfill the consumerist desires of our patients but to heal and restore them, and if that’s not possible, comfort them on their way. Annihilation does not heal or comfort. It is not medicine.
With the law taking effect in California, 16 percent of Americans now live in a suicide state. The law is a moral teacher, and this law teaches death-as-solution. With its safeguards light and unenforceable, it will be up to people like Shavelson to make ethical and moral decisions about who should live and who should die. That is a terrifying prospect.