Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans. It does not discriminate. It takes life without regard to age, income, ability, race, or gender. In the U.S., someone attempts suicide every 32 seconds, and someone completes a suicide every 14 minutes.
Thankfully, the New York State Office of Mental Health recognizes suicide as a serious public health concern and has established suicide prevention as a top priority. Our state spends literally millions of dollars on efforts to prevent suicide. There are in-depth suicide prevention education and training programs, crisis hotline numbers to call, coalitions and resources in every corner of the state.
The bottom line of all such efforts is to prevent death, to create supportive environments and instill hope in people who are drowning in a sea of hopelessness.
Paradoxically, groups that favor the legalization of physician-assisted suicide say New York is a state where there is "strong interest among lawmakers" and "tremendous public enthusiasm" to make suicide a legal option for the terminally ill. To accomplish this goal, three dangerous pieces of legislation have been introduced so far this year that would allow a doctor to give a lethal prescription to a terminally ill patient who wishes to commit suicide. A lawsuit has also been filed to throw out New York's current ban on assisted suicide.
Do they not see the contradiction? Let's review:
• We know that being bullied is a factor that can lead to suicide among teenagers, so we roll out anti-bullying campaigns in schools and tell the teens, "You are valuable, you are special, you are loved."
• We know that persons who are incarcerated often feel isolated and hopeless, so we train the prison employees to recognize the risk factors, make interventions and referrals, and support inmates with suicidal thoughts.
• We know that bridges are often a place where depressed people go, so we build in extra safety precautions to prevent death, like netting and cameras, telephones and signs that read "Life is Worth Living."
• We know that people facing terminal illness may feel burdensome, and an overwhelming loss of autonomy, so we give them some pills and say, "Go ahead, kill yourself."
Huh? The message that assisted suicide sends to people who are terminally sick is that some lives - their lives - are not worth living. They are officially burdens on society and so they are unworthy of the protection of the law. They are dispensable.
People living with disabilities take particular exception to this line of thinking. They know that patients in the final stages of a terminal illness often become unable to do things for themselves, like dressing, eating and bathing. They are therefore "disabled." The legalization of physician-assisted suicide would offer this particular population suicide assistance, while the rest of the population is provided with suicide prevention. And that amounts to discrimination against people with disabilities.
Just like any other person feeling hopeless, depressed and suicidal, a person with terminal illness needs a supportive environment and hope for the future. We need to envelope these people with good medical care, offering pain relief and symptom management; with time and attention to their physical, emotional and spiritual needs; and most of all, with comfort, love and compassion.
We need to respect their lives to the very end. We need to refuse to legitimize suicide, because no human life is expendable.
Kathleen M. Gallagher is the Director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.