George Will
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George Will Pushes the Hemlock

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Wesley J. Smith
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In recent years, George Will has been writing columns on contentious cultural issues that have, to put it mildly, unpleasantly surprised many of his social-conservative admirers. Perhaps first and foremost among these was his coming out in 2015 as a believer in assisted suicide.

He’s now taken his relatively quiet support a step further, writing two recent columns for the Washington Post that not only boosted nationwide legalization but also sought to normalize suicide as a means of dying for the terminally ill.

Alas for the usually factually fastidious Will, much of what he has written in these columns is false or, at best, half-true. Perhaps even worse, the facts he omits prevent his readers from attaining a true understanding of breadth, depth, and scope of this radical and dangerous social agenda.

In one of his columns, Will peddles the false idea that legalized assisted suicide is limited to preventing an agonizing death. He writes:

Crucially, MAID [medical aid in dying] is for those who are already dying and want help for preventing a hideous death, not for truncating an unhappy life. MAID — the medical management of a natural process — should be considered a supplement to hospice (palliative) care.

Where to begin? First, people who commit assisted suicide are very rarely in intractable pain. Rather, the reasons usually involve fears of “being a burden,” worries about “losing dignity,” and the prospect of being unable “to engage in enjoyable activities.”

Don’t believe me? Just ask George Will. Here’s what he wrote when he endorsed assisted suicide in 2015:

The most common reason for requesting assistance in dying is not “intolerable physical suffering.” Rather, it is “existential suffering,” including “loss of meaning,” as from the ability to relate to others.

I guess he forgot.

In that column, Will claimed that such existential issues cannot be ameliorated. But that isn’t true. With proper care, love, and support, people can be helped to overcome despair and hopelessness, even as their lives are coming to an end. Just ask the many hospice and mental- health professionals who help dying people cope with these fears every day.

Second, no state law that allows physician-prescribed death requires patients to be in danger of a “hideous death.” For example, the Oregon Health Authority lists the criteria required to qualify for a lethal prescription under that state’s Death With Dignity Act:

To request a prescription for lethal medications, the DWDA requires that a patient must be:

  • An adult (18 years of age or older),
  • A resident of Oregon,
  • Capable (defined as able to make and communicate health care decisions), and
  • Diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months.

That’s it. No untreatable pain, unrelievable anguish, or hideous end-of-life prospects required. And with the crass way assisted suicide is sometimes practiced these days, the entire process of obtaining the poison pills might happen impersonally via Zoom.

Not only that, but some people live well beyond expectations. Take the late humorist Art Buchwald. He entered hospice after being told he had weeks to live. But he didn’t die. He eventually left hospice care and wrote his last book — extolling hospice — before succumbing to his kidney disease almost a year later. Some patients don’t die from their “terminal” illness at all. A friend of mine was diagnosed as having three months to live with lung cancer more than 15 years ago. He’s not dead yet.

Nothing pushes assisted suicide like fear-mongering. That is why “hideous deaths” are raised like a bloody flag. Will does this in excruciating detail in his two columns. In one, he describes the god-awful experience a cancer patient named Chris Davis experienced with cancer pain. But that doesn’t seem to be — as Will describes the case — because Davis’s suffering couldn’t have been treated. Rather, it was because he was misdiagnosed and deprived of proper care.

Surely the way to ameliorate that kind of crisis is to improve end-of-life care, rather than allowing the same doctors who failed to properly treat a patient to “fix” the problem by assisting in a suicide. In this regard, a study was just released finding that the U.S. ranks 43rd out of 81 countries studied in providing good care at the end of life. Legalizing assisted suicide wouldn’t be a means of ending this travesty but of surrendering to it.

Will generally disdains sophistry. But not on this issue. Rather than call the process “physician-assisted suicide” — an accurate and descriptive term — he falls back on the pretense that it is not really “suicide” when terminally ill people kill themselves with the aid of a doctor, but “medical aid in dying.” He writes:

Suicide connotes despair and perhaps derangement. Dying is a facet of every life. An anticipated death, in the presence of loved ones, a death chosen after reflection about predictable, unavoidable pain, should not be proscribed by society’s laws or condemned by its mores.

The word “suicide” describes what was done — a self-killing — not why it was done. If one must hide a policy agenda behind deflecting euphemisms, there is probably something wrong with the agenda.

Will also supports what are sometimes called “suicide parties.” These are gatherings of friends and loved ones to pay a final goodbye to the soon-to-be departed before watching as the suicidal person consumes lethal drugs. Never mind that attending such a gathering makes one complicit in the suicide. It can also send the unintentional message that, “Yes, you are a burden,” “Yes, your life is not worth living,” “Yes, we will remember you better if you don’t cause us to suffer through your final days.” Sometimes, intended kindnesses can actually be cruel.

Finally, Will acknowledges the dangers of legalizing assisted suicide to the weak, vulnerable, and despairing, but sniffs, “Life is lived on a slippery slope.”

Sorry. That is just not good enough. Once suicide via euthanasia becomes an acceptable answer to human suffering — which is the fundamental principle underlying the right-to-die movement — there is virtually no limiting principle. Over time, as people get used to the death agenda, “protective guidelines” are redefined as “obstacles” to “death on your own terms.” And the laws loosen. Indeed, Will celebrates the ongoing relaxing of eligibility standards in states that have already legalized assisted suicide.

It’s even worse in cultures that more widely accept euthanasia than we do in America. In those places, the terminal-illness standard has been abandoned altogether. In Canada, euthanasia is now available for people with disabilities, the frail elderly, and those with chronic conditions. Patients with dementia and the mentally ill will also soon be able to access the lethal jab — as they already do in the Netherlands and Belgium. All three of these countries have made the utilitarian leap of conjoining lethal injections with organ harvesting. In Germany, there is now a fundamental right to commit suicide — and receive assistance — for any reason the suicidal person may want to die. No illness or pain required.

My recounting of these (what I consider to be) horrors — which is very partial — isn’t a slippery-slope argument. It’s an accurate depiction of facts already on the ground. Will needs to grapple with these truths if he is going to be an honest advocate.

Which brings us to the real question at hand. Should people have a fundamental right to be made dead — for whatever reason they think necessary to end suffering that they believe they cannot bear? Because — as Germany proves — planned or not, that is the logical destination of this movement.

This is the debate we should be having. Not one that hides behind the reassuring false premise that assisted suicide is only for the rare case of hideous deaths from terminal illness. Because it can’t be “just” that. It won’t be. It isn’t.