Death With Dignity?

Death With Dignity?

An Interview with Rita Marker

By John Mallon

(The following article appeared in the February, 2007, English International Edition of Messenger of St. Anthony (Padua, Italy), It is reprinted here with their kind permission.)

Rita L. Marker, JD, is the executive director of The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, in Steubenville, Ohio.  Her 1993 book, Deadly Compassion: The Death of Ann Humphry and the Truth About Euthanasia, was a bestseller. We spoke to Mrs. Marker by phone regarding a shocking report on the Task Force’s website, entitled, “Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide & Health Care Decisions: Protecting Yourself & Your Family” The report may be found at

We also recommend readers view the second part of the report at, which gives the alternative to living wills, which Marker warns are very dangerous. Instead, Marker recommends a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. For this purpose the Task Force formulated the Protective Medical Decisions Document (PMDD), and strongly recommends it for anyone over the age of 18. Information on obtaining a PMDD is available on the web site.

Mrs. Marker, reading your report, “Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide & Health Care Decisions: Protecting Yourself & Your Family,” one cannot help getting a sense of déjà vu reading and seeing that the euthanasia and assisted suicide movements are using the same tactics which were used to get abortion legalized, namely double talk, pushing incremental changes by gauging what’s acceptable to the public, and euphemisms.

Realistically speaking, we have to say that’s the way all political movements are driven. No matter what is being proposed, the proponents always frame it in a way that would be the most appealing. Otherwise, you would never have any change in anything, be it change for the good or change for the bad. So, certainly it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the language is used in that way. It’s been said, and I think it’s very true, that verbal engineering precedes all social engineering and this certainly bears it out. 

Could you tell us about the distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide, which you mentioned in the report?

Yes, and I want to explain that I am giving the legal distinctions. There may be other distinctions on the ethical and moral standpoint, but from a legal standpoint, euthanasia means intentionally and directly killing someone by, for example, a lethal injection or holding a pillow over their face. 

It means the person who does the last act, which causes death, is someone other than the person who dies. In assisted suicide, that third party provides the means, knowing and intending that the person to whom they are given to commit suicide will use the means. For example, in Oregon, it is sleeping pills that are used for assisted suicide, and they are prescribed for the purpose of all being taken at one time to cause death. That is assisted suicide. The person who dies actually takes the last act. In this case the last act would be the person swallowing. That’s the distinction from a legal standpoint. And it really is an important distinction because the penalties are different as is the way in which the law looks at it. 

There was a striking comment in there from a British doctor who looked over some reports that said there were no complications, to which he said, "If any surgeon or physician had told me that he did 200 procedures without any complications, I knew that he possibly needed counseling and had no insight. We come here and I am told there are no complications. There is something strange going on."

Exactly. In fact, that British doctor had been meeting in closed-door session with the practitioners and proponents of assisted suicide in Oregon, and put the best face on it. They say, “Oh, there haven’t been any complications!” But it’s always important to remember that those carrying out the assisted suicides write those reports. 

It would be like someone driving down a highway and the state decided that they would no longer have any law enforcement officers near the highway to see if people are driving within the speed limit. But if instead they said, “When you reach your destination, call us and tell us whether you broke the law.” It wouldn’t make any sense, and yet that’s exactly how the reports are coming out of Oregon. This is very important for people to realize, not only in the United States, but also across the world because Oregon is being used as the model for assisted suicide working well. 

It is indicative of the topsy-turvy morality when the patient’s survival is considered a complication.

That’s true, absolutely.

Another remarkable thing that comes through in the report is the lack of oversight by any regulatory agency.

People should recognize that if assisted suicide becomes a medical treatment, which it has in the state of Oregon, there is no way to maintain any of the so-called boundaries or so-called safeguards. It is inevitable that if it becomes available it will be available for any reason or any purpose. 

Right now they’re saying, “This is just for competent adults.” In fact, the first time there is a court challenge that will change. As for regulation, there is no way of verifying the numbers reported by the proponents. We do not know if those numbers are accurate or not. Certainly they are not going to say that they violated the law. 

Those reports which have appeared on the official website of the State of Oregon are referred to as assisted suicide. Now, instead, they are only going to call them “Deaths under the Death with Dignity Act,” Because in places other than Oregon, when they hear the words, “assisted suicide” they think “That’s a bad thing” And so, they are changing it to say it is a death occurring under the Death with Dignity Act. There again, we have more of that semantics problem.

These are the kind of things that when you point them out to people they say, “That sounded good, but I didn’t know it meant that.”

Well, they’ve used other phrases, too, over the years. In recent years when this was first proposed in California, and in Washington State in 1991, someone would be asked if they wanted aid in dying. Well, of course good doctors have always provided aid to the dying, but it was aid in dying by making the patient more comfortable. It is necessary to call something what it is. 

In one of your points you say, “Under the assisted-suicide law, depressed or mentally ill patients can receive assisted suicide if they do not have "impaired judgment." Normally we look at suicides and most of us think, “The poor thing, they must have had impaired judgment.”

Not really, no, because impaired judgment from a legal standpoint means understanding what you are doing. Understanding what you are requesting, understanding what is going to happen to you. 

Are Oregon, Belgium and The Netherlands the only places where this is legal?

Yes, but there is a caveat. Oregon permits assisted suicide if the physician is the one who prescribes the deadly overdose. In the Netherlands and Belgium, both euthanasia by lethal injection and assisted suicide are legal but rarely is assisted suicide carried out in the Netherlands or in Belgium, because the death practitioners recognize there are complications —as they refer to them—convulsions, all kinds of problems—really unpleasant things happening after taking the overdose. Doctors are always there to give a lethal injection if necessary. So, from a legal standpoint those are the only places where, in fact, euthanasia and/or assisted suicide have been transformed into a medical treatment. 

How can people respond when they hear their friends or family say, “I wouldn’t want to live like that; it’s nobody’s business what somebody does with their own life.” What can you say?

It’s very important to realize the tragedy of suicide exists. In the United States right now there are three suicides for every 2 homicides. Also in the United States, be it suicide or attempted suicide—neither of those can be penalized. This is not, however, what is being proposed regarding assisted suicide. Suicide is a personal tragedy. Assisted suicide is not a matter of a personal tragedy or a personal choice. It is a change in public policy that transforms assisted suicide from a crime into a medical treatment that would be on a par with all other medical treatments.


John Mallon is a contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine. His personal website can be found at http://johnmallon.LIFE