Right To Drugs Or Right To Die?

Whether or not it proves to be the case that Prince’s death was caused by an overdose of painkillers (like Michael Jackson’s) the problems we have in this country with opioids is massive. It’s a very different, and in someways a more complicated, problem than other kinds of drug addiction like heroin or cocaine. These drugs are often prescribed by doctors and the user becomes addicted slowly while trying to manage the symptoms of real and chronic pain.

We simply have to get on top of this issue because, as more and more of us live longer and longer, more and more families are going to be confronted with the need for so-called palliative care. Failing that, increasing numbers of people are going to join voices as different as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and talk show host, Diane Rehm, who are calling for legislation commonly called “the right to die.” In other words, physician assisted suicide.

I am conflicted personally about that approach. My church, and most others, continues to speak against this kind of suicide, pointing to the value to human life to the very end and to the slippery slope which could lead to elders being taking advantage of by relatives all too happy to speed us on our way. Invariably, they point to such things as hospice care and palliative care (including opioids and other pain killing drugs)as doing away with the need for anyone to suffer unrelenting pain and agony in their last stages of life.

That, however, is easier stated than demonstrated in practice. My wife and I walked with her mother during the last years and months of a painfully degenerative illness which led to her increasing use of oxycodone and other such medications.  At the end, they barely touched her pain and, like Diane Rehm’s late husband, she eventually stopped eating and drinking, we are convinced, in order to hasten her own demise and end the suffering she had to endure for all too long.

For, in order to avoid tragedies like Prince’s, doctors are often extremely careful about how much pain killing medication they are willing to prescribe. The pollyanna view that “no one need die in pain anymore” is simply false.

If, holier than thou religious types wish to pontificate about refusing to support physician assisted suicide, perhaps they had better spend more time at the bedsides and in the homes of, especially, the poor who do indeed continue to die in pain and who wish nothing more than to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ who, at the last, “bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30c)

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