The New York Times , in a web-only column, features a deconstruction of arguments for doctor-assisted suicide (“myths,” the author calls them), the legality of which is on the ballot in Massachusetts next week. Of particular interest is this statistic, which ought to tamp down the recurring appeals to pathos on the part of euthanasia advocates:

Only 22 percent of patients who died between 1998 and 2009 by assisted suicide in Oregon— one of three states, along with Washington and Montana, where it is legal — were in pain or afraid of being in pain, according to their doctors. Among the seven patients who received euthanasia in Australia in the brief time it was legal in the ’90s, three reported no pain, and the pain of the other four was adequately controlled by medications.

Patients themselves say that the primary motive is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control.

This is surely a problem, but one of quite a different character than the common invocation of vast numbers of sufferers would suggest. It’s also clearly distinct from cases where medical life-extension is indeed less dignified and more excessive than natural death, though those cases do exist. In fact, I wonder if legitimating this procedure legally and medically wouldn’t actually help fuel this sense of despair. At the very least, it’d be an implicit  message from the broader society that those notions of worthlessness are in some way legitimate.

On a related note, Dr. Ezekial J. Emanuel (who is, funnily enough, a sibling of Rahm Emanuel) posits an intriguing thesis on what may be behind this (and many previous) efforts at legalizing medical suicide. It’s not simply the inexorable growth of technology: “If interest in legalizing euthanasia is tied to any trend in history, it is the rise of individualistic strains of thought that glorify personal choice.”

Read the full piece here .

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