Stories compel us. Authors, composers, poets and artists know this. The best stories draw us in, make us part of the drama and generate personal interest in the characters. We see ourselves in them — as we are, or as we might wish to be.
Lobbyists, marketers, our day’s “influencers” also know this. They understand that making a case for a policy proposal, a product or service, or a social change is best done not with statistics, graphs and reasoned arguments, but with stories of people’s lives. Mary, the struggling single parent; Joe, the carpenter down the street who coaches youth soccer; Jennifer and Matthew, whose child died by gun violence. Stories make abstract concepts and future possibilities come alive.
Jesus also knows this, of course. His familiar parables and their characters like the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Lost Sheep and the Sower and the Seed have entered our everyday conversation and stimulate our imaginations.
Stories compel us.
The past seven years have seen regular renewed efforts to introduce legislation in Minnesota permitting assisted suicide. The bill introduced
in 2016 was withdrawn by its author when it was clear there was overwhelming opposition. The “End of Life Options Act” reappeared in 2019 and now again in 2023 in both chambers (HF 1830, SF 1318). Though its outcome is uncertain, it remains a risk in our state.
Modeled largely on Oregon’s 1994 law and buoyed by the gradual but eventual success of similar efforts around the country, the proposed legislation has grown increasingly expansive and erodes distinctions and precautions once considered necessary. Any licensed practitioner could prescribe lethal drugs. Families need not be notified. A psychological evaluation would be optional. Facilities would have limited control over the practice within their walls.
Trends in recent years add to the pressure behind this effort. The mental health crisis around the country, various barriers to access to medical and palliative care in many areas, the challenges in retaining an adequate health care workforce and the persistent individualism in our culture all add to the enticing illusion of control over one’s lifespan with the time and manner of dying.
Because stories compel us, you have already seen articles, news features, videos and other media telling the stories of people who advocate for assisted suicide. But there are also life-affirming stories, and we need more of them told — the families who keep vigil with a dying loved one; the No One Dies Alone volunteers who sit with those otherwise unknown to them when family cannot be present; the compassionate providers who bring an array of comfort measures through palliative care to improve the quality of life for those who will not get better, but can feel better; the neighbors who listen, do chores and offer small gestures of kindness to relieve the sorrow and pain that naturally come with serious illness and approaching death.
Of course, one can dismiss such testimonies easily enough: “That’s great for you if you choose it. But that’s not what I choose.” But this issue is not simply a matter of personal convictions and preferences. Compelling as they are, stories can mask essential questions we need to ask when we move past poignant episodes and think through the larger picture of passing legislation to permit assisted suicide. What kind of society will we become if this is part of our response to sickness and human need?
Leaving aside any claims of faith and morality, a purely pragmatic analysis raises grounded concerns. Legalizing assisted suicide undermines the social contract with, and commitments by, the medical community of healers to help the sick and protect the vulnerable. It normalizes death as a remedy for anxiety, fear and dependency. It aggravates the bias against those living with disabilities and chronic diseases of body and mind, and it can readily shift from the desire to die for some to a “duty to die” for others who are perceived as exhausting scarce resources. It discourages development of better techniques for alleviating human suffering and making palliative care more broadly available. It elevates the individual choice of a few to become the obligation of the many.
But those read like abstractions. We need stories of those whose resilience, courage and selfless compassion inspire hope in both those who give and those who receive. Create those stories with those in need and tell them widely.
While death will claim each of us, it need not be our master. Suffering, fear and dependence on others may threaten what we cherish and hold important in life, but assisted suicide allows death to silence the stories of life embraced in all its variety. Is that silence the story we want to tell those who will follow?
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as vicar for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Go to mncatholic.org for more information and a simple way to contact your elected officials to make your voice heard on this proposed legislation and many other issues grounded in Catholic social teaching.
Adobe Stock / patient in bed