Pols' suicide rhetoric is an indignity
Chris Weinkopf, Editorial-page Editor
LA Daily News
Article Last Updated:05/05/2007 10:12:35 PM PDT
WHY should California adopt Assemblyman Lloyd Levine's bill requiring dog and cat owners to spay or neuter their pets? Because, the Van Nuys Democrat has said, doing so would "address the needless slaughter" of as many as 500,000 animals in the state's shelters each year.
Remember that turn of phrase: "needless slaughter." This is how Levine describes euthanizing dogs and cats.
It's a telling description because, in Levine's view, when the victims of euthanasia are not animals, but humans, theirs is a "Death with Dignity." That's the popular name of another piece of legislation the assemblyman has authored, one that would permit doctors to help kill patients whom they determine have no more than six months to live.
The bill twice failed to clear the Democratic Legislature in the past three years, but Levine and his co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Santa Rosa, are reluctant to usher it off to an early death. This time, thanks to the co-sponsorship of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, it could just pass.
So, too, might Levine's spay-neuter bill. If so, the warped message from Sacramento would be: Injecting a stray cat with a lethal medication is a tragedy; feeding a dispirited and vulnerable senior citizen a lethal is a civil right.
But coming from Levine, this all somehow makes sense.
Levine is the same lawmaker, after all, who has proposed banning pet cloning and the sale of incandescent light bulbs. For him, there are some grave moral wrongs the law must forbid - like creating two pets out of the same genetic material, or pole lamps - but barring doctors and HMOs from offing distressed, suggestible patients isn't one of them. Go figure.
What about doctors who don't want to get into the business of shortening their patients' lives, physicians who take seriously the Hippocratic oath and its pledge to do no harm? Not to worry, says Levine; his bill includes a conscience clause, ensuring that no medical professionals would have to do anything they consider morally abhorrent.
Take that assurance with a large grain of cyanide. Levine is also the one-time author of legislation that would have forced pharmacists, to distribute abortifacients. As the assemblyman has demonstrated, when "conscience" goes up against "choice," conscience loses every time.
And if the erratic spinnings of Levine's moral compass disturb you, you won't fine much solace in the words of his suicide bill's co-sponsors.
Take Nunez's angry response to L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony's suggestion that, by championing assisted suicide, is supporting a culture of death. "I support the `culture of death?"' Nunez fumed. "I don't even support the death penalty."
Indeed, and the irony is thick. While the courts have suspended capital punishment in California out of concern that lethal injection may cause pain to condemned killers, Nunez sees fit to bring lethal medications to those whose only crime is despair. And even though the state is hard-pressed to find willing doctors to oversee its executions, the speaker wants doctors to preside over the killing of its terminally ill. (No wonder both the California and American Medical Associations oppose this bill.)
Then there's Berg, who rejects the term "assisted suicide" because "suicide implies that you can live." The terminally ill, according to the logic of this formulation, apparently can't live, which raises the question: Why, then, does Berg insist that they need doctors to help them die?
A better question, though, is what makes surrendering to sickness, grief and financial or familial pressures a "death with dignity" in the first place? Is suicide somehow more "dignified" than fighting illness or treating suffering? Is our dignity really lost when we can no longer feed, dress or take ourselves to the bathroom?
Assisted-suicide supporters insinuate that dignity is not inherent in the human condition, but contingent upon one's abilities and the value society puts on them. Stick around too long - become too weak, too feeble - and you're undignified. Unlike other would-be suicides, your tragically low sense of self-worth is justified. (No wonder disability-rights groups also oppose this bill.)
The notion that the infirm or dying are lacking in dignity points to an astonishingly narrow view of humanity. Often, the weak and the sick can teach the rest of us a good deal about courage, acceptance, strength - and dignity, above all.
Chris Weinkopf is the Daily News' editorial-page editor. Write to him by e-mail at