A recent PBS special on end-of-life care raises important policy and philosophical questions about a subject many Americans avoid. But the special, entitled “When My Time Comes” and hosted by former NPR host Diane Rehm — who wrote a book with the same title last year — offers a troubling set of answers.
Rehm came to the end-of-life issue from personal experience. Her first husband, John Rehm, died in 2014 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The pain he faced in his final years, and the hunger strike that ended his life, engender sympathy and compassion from audiences, for obvious reasons.
That said, anecdotes do not always lead to good policy outcomes. Also, in this case, there is much that Rehm’s special either did not emphasize or left out entirely.
Advocating for Assisted Suicide
It seems unsurprising that a special hosted by someone considered one of the leading proponents of assisted suicide would take a largely positive tone towards a procedure she referred to in the program as “aid-in-dying.” In 2015, while still a host at NPR, the network’s ombudsman criticized Rehm for potentially violating ethical standards by appearing at fundraisers for Compassion and Choices, an assisted-suicide group. Rehm subsequently agreed to scale back her public advocacy efforts.
Indeed, for a program broadcast on a taxpayer-funded network, much of its contents seemed one-sided, even by PBS standards. Rehm didn’t interview any opponents of assisted suicide until roughly two-thirds of the way into the program.
One gets the impression that if Rehm hadn’t referenced her 2019 testimony before the Maryland legislature — where she supported a bill allowing doctors to prescribe fatal doses of narcotics that ultimately failed on a tie vote — she might have entirely glossed over the reasons people oppose assisted suicide.
Effects on the Vulnerable
Giving time, albeit late in the program, to opponents of assisted suicide brought an important perspective into the debate. From an African-American minister Rehm interviewed for the program to footage of Maryland legislators questioning her in 2019, these skeptics highlighted a key problem with legalizing assisted suicide — namely, that it could exploit the vulnerable.
Whether individuals with disabilities, those with low incomes, or racial and ethnic minorities with a history of mistreatment from medical practitioners, assisted suicide could prompt a move from some segments in society — from insurance companies to government bureaucrats — that encourages, or even pushes, the weakest to take their own lives. Even supporters of the practice should acknowledge it could have far different applications for individuals not as affluent, or as well-educated, as Rehm and her late husband.
A Question of Tolerance
As to Rehm’s personal views, an excerpt from her 2019 testimony strikes a chord:
My philosophy in this matter is to respect that singularly personal moment for each of us. If you believe that only God should be the decider, I support you 100%. If you wish to have every single option that medical science can provide, I support you 100 percent. And if you believe, as I do, that you want the right to end your suffering at a time you choose, I support you 100 percent.
This statement sounds generous — Rehm expressing a willingness to support other points of view on the matter. But in the current context of debates surrounding religious liberty, that respectful patina may ring hollow to some conservatives.
Not too many years ago, leftists argued that, on issues such as gay marriage and transgenderism, people of different sexual persuasions or gender identities just wanted to live their own lives in peace. But not three years after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide, that court heard a case in which the left essentially demanded: “Bake the cake, bigot.” In that case, bureaucrats in Colorado attempted to force a baker to construct a cake for a gay ceremony that violated his religious beliefs — a symptom of a larger debate nationwide.
In perhaps the key moment of “When My Time Comes,” Rehm described her husband’s decision to embark upon the hunger strike that claimed his life as him “taking back control.”
Therein lies the crux of the larger debate surrounding religious liberty, as many conservatives would disagree with Rehm’s language. To millions of believers, including many who share the Episcopal faith of Rehm and her late husband, man does not have control in the first place — God does. In this paradigm, man does not have the power to take his own life, nor to permit other people to take their lives, nor to redefine marriage nor sex roles.
By contrast, those with secular beliefs not only want the control to make those decisions themselves but seek to have those decisions validate by society — a validation religious faithful believe they do not have the power to give, as that power can only come from a higher authority.
Rehm can speak of tolerance all she likes; she may even believe in it. But count this observer skeptical that broadening assisted-suicide laws would not soon lead to attempts to force physicians and hospitals to partake in the procedure, just as Democrats want to force doctors to perform abortions. Rendering that which is Caesar’s unto Caesar, and that which is God’s unto God becomes difficult when one side of the debate does not distinguish between the two.