People have been fighting for the legal “right to die” for decades now. Assisted suicide (which, in another time, perhaps another place, God Blogging thinks might have been called homicide) is now legal in Oregon and Washington and Montana Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in September on a case that could lead to that gorgeous state becoming the third to allow assisted suicide. And as everyone knows, Switzerland is a haven for those wanting to chose the time of their own deal, being home to Dignitas in Zurich, which charges a mere $7,000 to put the terminally ill out of their misery. Or, as was the case earlier this month, put a relatively healthy elderly man to death just because he asked.
Folks may not be paying attention to what happened to Sir Edward Downes, but they should, because his case further clouds the waters surrounding the murky practice of assisted suicide. Downes, 85, nearly blind and “increasingly” deaf but otherwise healthy, was allowed to hold hands with his wife, who had terminal cancer, while they each drank a “small quantity of clear liquid” that killed them both. Normally, assisted suicide, when and where it is allowed, is sanctioned only in cases of terminal illness and grave pain. Oregon, which has had the practice for a decade, has a series of stringent requirements someone must meet before being allowed a prescription for “lethal medications,” most important of which is proving they have a terminal illness that will kill them within six months. But Dignitas pushes for death on demand, believing that everyone has the right to personal autonomy. Ergo, they agreed to what was essentially a suicide pact between Downes and his wife.
Downes, a former conductor of Britain’s Royal Opera and a world-renown composer, was simply suffering – if it can be called that – the effects of old age, and, it appears, from a surfeit of fear. He did not want to live in a world that did not include his wife. Let’s unpack this a little, shall we?
My father-in-law is 91, nearly blind from macular degeneration and he wears a hearing aid that still requires us to speak loudly, slowly and clearly. His artificial knee has worn out and he’s considering a scooter to ease some of the pain of walking. If my mother-in-law — the woman he still calls “my bride” — were to die, would Henry be lonely? Absolutely; one doesn’t spend more than 50 years sharing a bed with someone else and not wake up after that person’s death with grave heartache. But a broken heart, or the fear of loneliness, does not equal a terminal illness. It does not – it should not – qualify for assisted suicide.
Of course, I’m not sure anything should qualify for assisted suicide. Is the fact that one is going to die within six months really reason for us – the society – to assist in killing them? If the person is in horrific pain and palliative care doesn’t work, is that a good enough reason? If the person’s medial care is costing too much (defined by whom?), is THAT a good enough reason? According to an essay by Nancy Gibbs in Time Magazine, one-third of the people choosing assisted suicide in Oregon said they did so because of the burden on their families and caregivers, so maybe this isn’t even about impending death and current pain. Maybe its all about feeling like a burden and maybe that is the problem we need to deal with. Perhaps people need to relearn that life sometimes requires sacrifice, that love of family sometimes demands much.
Because if we don’t, there may come a terrible time not too soon in our fast-moving future where the choice to die (signing a living will saying you don’t want a feeding tube, for instance) becomes subtle pressure on the dying to just hurry up and get it over with: “You had a good life, Daddy, don’t you think? Isn’t now the time to just let go? Let me get you some medicine.”
The debate over health care reform is raging and while nothing new will come too soon, one of the scariest things I heard President Obama say in his discussions of the need for reform was that the elderly and those near the end of life account for “potentially 80 percent” of the total health care bill for the nation. OK, so what? Is my father in law’s life worth less than mine? Less than my son’s? Who gets to chose? And will there be pressure, ever so subtle (one imagines ads on TVs played in all the retirement villages across the country with a pleasant voice cooing about the benefits of no more suffering), for the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, to make life easier on the healthy, the young, the able-bodied by visiting their neighborhood “kill-me-now” center?
The slippery slope argument sometimes loses some of its force because it is applied poorly (i.e.: artificial contraception in marriage will lead to more abortions), but in the case of assisted suicide, I think we’re slipping right along. We need to look long and hard at some heavy moral questions. Is suffering, in and of itself, bad? Can the dying, in going through that process, not teach us all something about life? Are some lives worth more than others?
End-of-life palliative care and groups such as Hospice have made great strides in helping the dying pass on with dignity and without unbearable pain. Are there some cases where the pain cannot be relieved? Probably. Are there doctors who help patients in those cases? According to research, yes. But do we need to make that the status quo and the natural way the rarity? Absolutely not.