Writings and observations

Carlson: “To be, or not to be …”

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

The latest national Gallup poll on social attitudes reports a new number one issue that most divides the American public. For years the issue has been abortion. Today it is physician assisted suicide (PAS).

While 48 percent of the respondents said the matter was “morally objectionable all the time,” some 45 percent said it could be morally acceptable.

The issue has gained sufficient attention that the nation’s Catholic bishops finally issued a policy statement deploring its increased public acceptance at their annual summer meeting in June in Bellevue, Washington.

It is an eloquent statement, worth reading. It provides effective counter-arguments to those made by PAS supporters that the issue is a matter of “choice” and “compassion.” Sadly, it fails to grasp that one cannot effectively counter an emotional appeal rooted in the fear many have of dying with rational appeals. The challenge is to find an emotional appeal that resonates more forcefully with the public, regardless of whether one believes in God and an Afterlife, and one rooted in hope rather than despair.

Opponents of abortion on demand finally figured this out and began to turn the tide when they started running ads featuring the child at 20 weeks in the womb, with a beating heart and already human form. Those ads made an emotional connection that underscored their message. Consequently, it put abortion supporters on the defensive by casting would-be mothers who use abortion as a contraceptive or simply don’t want to accept the responsibility for a consensual act of sex that produces a third life as being selfish and willing to sacrifice the life of a child because of inconvenience.

Physician assisted suicide is an equally complex issue, which most folks instinctively see purely in their own context. Many can see themselves taking a premature departure if they feel they are being made to suffer unendurable pain, or have become a burden on their families.

Preaching about viewing life as ending only with natural death, trusting God and recognizing that there is Grace in allowing families assisting one through the final transition carries little weight with some, especially non-believers, and those who don’t attend church on a regular basis, which is especially so in the Pacific Northwest, a region known for its religious independence.

Too many people fail to recognize one of life’s major goals is the acceptance of an end and the mastering of a philosophy that helps us learn how to die. Our natural inclination is to want to live and breathe as long as we can. Throughout history, many cultures have viewed suicide as an unnatural, anti-life, selfish act that almost always passes on an individual’s personal pain to loved ones.

Few people argue against one’s ability–as opposed to a right–to end his or her life. Where the issue gets sticky is when proponents say physicians, counter to the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, should be allowed (and someday, mandated) to provide one with the drugs they can ingest to kill themselves. The doctor doesn’t have to witness the death. In fact, no one has to witness the death under Washington’s voter adopted law.

What we have though is the state laying out the criteria (terminally ill, less than six months to live) by which a doctor can write the prescription. If the patient avails themselves of this doctor-explained option (how many may hear obligation, not option?), the law further mandates the doctor signing the death certificate has to list the underlying disease as the cause of death not the lethal dose of drugs.

That is a stretch at best and a lie at worst. There’s something intrinsically wrong with a law that mandates skirting the truth about the cause of death.

In reviewing the bishop’s statement not only was the emotional counter-argument missing, it also lacked an “Action Plan” or even a commitment to develop one that would educate Catholic laity and the general public as to why supporting PAS is truly not in either their or society’s best interest.

Most recognize the title of this essay from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on whether to commit suicide in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. There’s another line in that play that reminds one of the futility of not linking words to action.

King Laertes, who has stolen the crown from his brother, Hamlet’s father, by murdering the brother and then marrying his now widowed sister-in-law, is on his knees praying in the chapel asking for God’s forgiveness.

He rises up and says to the audience: “My words rise up; my thoughts stay below. Words without thought to heaven do not go.”

Bishops, listen up.

Chris Carlson was given less than six months to live in November of 2005 when he contracted a rare form of terminal carcinoid neuroendocrine cancer. He obviously is still with us. His objection to PAS led him to the chairmanship of the statewide campaign against I-1000, a Washington state initiative approving PAS that voters passed in 2008.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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