Dignity vs. quality of life

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I was struck by a thought the other day (happens now and then). I still haven’t decided exactly how I feel about it, but I’d like to explore it with you.

More Americans appear to be moving to the view that capital punishment is not acceptable. Nearly half of all states have abolished it or had their courts overturn it, and the number continues to grow.

Many arguments are made in support of this position, but one of them is that we have no means of actually taking the lives of those on death row — including the most popular, lethal injection — that doesn’t qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is forbidden by our Constitution.

At the same time, Americans seem to be moving, perhaps more slowly, but moving still, toward a position in favor of assisted suicide. That is, they favor allowing certain individuals — who are judged mentally fit but terminally ill — to take their own lives through a fatal, doctor-prescribed dose of barbiturates that puts them into a coma within minutes and kills within half an hour. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I considered these two facts at the same time, I experienced cognitive dissonance. Can we honestly say that we have a painless, easily administered means of death for those who wish to take their own lives, but not for those who have taken the lives of others?

It seems to me that the “cruel and unusual” claim about lethal injection obfuscates what is really going on here. The objection at root, as some opponents admit, is against the death penalty itself.

As I said before, there are many reasons that people might oppose the death penalty, and it is not my purpose in this column to try to explain or address those.

Nor do I have space here to adequately discuss the arguments for and against assisted suicide. These are both huge issues with tremendous ramifications, and I’m sure we will be debating them as a society for years to come.

But I am interested in raising some questions I think we should be asking as we grapple with these life and death matters.

First, I wanted to know how big a “problem” we have, potentially at least, with the infliction of the death penalty. How many people are we talking about?

So I went to look up some basic statistics. Perhaps you will find them as surprising as I did.

Over the past couple of years, the estimated number of homicides committed in the United States ranged between 14,000 and 16,000 per year. I thought that sounded pretty ominous. For an unfair comparison, Great Britain, with one-fifth our population, reported one-thirtieth the number of homicides in 2014 (515 total). 

So I was surprised to read that, according to FBI data as reported by FactCheck.org, “the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate nationwide (4.6 per 100,000 population) in 2014 was at its lowest point since at least the early 1960s.” (For reference, it was 10.2, more than twice as high, in 1980.)

And just as murder rates have been declining, so the number of criminals executed throughout the country has also been falling, from a high of 98 in 1999 to 39 in 2013 and 20 in 2016.

Then I turned to look at the numbers of Americans committing suicide and found more surprises, including a trend in the opposite direction.

The number of Americans committing suicide in recent years exceeds 40,000. And a study from the CDC last year reported a 24 percent increase in the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States from 1999 through 2014. In its coverage of the report, the Washington Post noted that “suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years.”

What does it say about our society that our attention to the unfairness of the death penalty increases even as our murder (and execution) rates precipitously decline; while we are tending to greater acceptance of helping people kill themselves even as our suicide rate explodes?

One thing it might say about us is that we have situational views about the quality of life, or even about the basic dignity of human life.

A major argument made in support of assisted suicide is that it is a legitimate quality-of-life decision that a terminally ill person should be allowed to make for herself.

On the other hand, we understandably don’t seem to worry about the quality of life of convicted murderers. Take Charles Manson, for example, who has spent the last 45 years serving nine life terms in a California prison.

Wouldn’t his execution back at the start have enabled him to escape a poor quality of life on death row all these years? Should we have given him the choice? Or have we decided as a society that this lack of choice is part of his punishment?

Perhaps instead we agree with the Washington Post, which argued in a recent editorial inveighing against the death penalty for Dylann Roof — who murdered nine black people in church during a Bible study class — that “The practice of killing human beings, even with all the due process in the world, is...in tension with the inherent dignity Americans should ascribe to human life.”

But if so, doesn’t the life of a terminally ill person possess that same inherent dignity? Or does “poor quality of life” trump life itself?

I would also like to note that in much of Europe, physician-assisted suicide (termed “euthanasia”) has grown significantly in popularity in recent years. Even in countries like the Netherlands, where it is officially illegal, it is widely practiced because the government turns a blind eye.

And importantly, the original practice to limit it to the terminally ill has dropped by the wayside. In a 2015 cover story, Newsweek reported that “the Dutch don’t require proof of a terminal illness to allow doctors to ‘help’ patients die...The Dutch can now choose death if they’re tired of living.”

One last set of stats: In 2013, 4,829 Dutch turned to a doctor to end their lives. That constituted one in every 28 deaths that year. Were the United States to have had a similar proportion of voluntary deaths last year, the number would be 93,800 people.

I share these thoughts about capital punishment and assisted suicide to inspire you to think about these issues.

I make no pretense of adequately addressing either of them, much less squaring them with each other. I just wanted to raise some questions I think we need to start asking ourselves.

I invite you to share your thoughts. Please email info@thebeaconnewspapers.com, or mail us a letter to the editor. We will print a representative sample of responses in future issues.