Monday, July 27, 2009

Assisted Suicide: A Human Right

In this week's Time Magazine, Nancy Gibbs presented an essay entitled, "Dying Together." The subtitle was, "An elderly British couple's suicide pact is a beautifully romantic act - and a troubling one." It's not troubling to me.

The husband was 85, a former conductor of Britain's Royal Opera. His eyesight was almost gone and his hearing was weak. His wife, 74, a former ballerina, had terminal liver and pancreatic cancer. They went to Zurich where, for $7,000 each, they were given beds next to each other and two small doses of clear liquid. They drank the barbiturate, lay down to sleep, and died within minutes. Legally.

Ms. Gibbs transitoned from this poignant story to describe the viewpoint of euthanasia activists like Ludwig Minelli, who believes that every human should have the right to end their own lives regardless of their physical or mental condition. She compares this viewpoint with that of those who believe every life is precious, to the point of preventing suicide regardless of whatever reason one might want to do it.

Then comes the punch line. Obama apparently said, "those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80% of the total health care bill." (I've been writing about this lately in other posts.) Gibbs is concerned that "the right to die might become a duty to die." This is the old "slippery slope" argument - give them an inch and soon they'll take a mile. She cites examples where aged parents chose suicide in order to remove an economic burden from their children, and she concludes, "Advances in palliative care mean that those last years of life do not have to be a moral, medical, and financial nightmare."

I disagree. I have known several individuals whose lives became so restricted or painful that they chose to end their lives by suicide. In the case of Sir Edward Downes, life without the other and without faculties was too much to bear. His wife simply chose to avoid unnecessary agony. I don't see their pact as romantic; I see it as practical. Others are free to make totally opposite decisions, to choose lives of semi-vegetativeness or cruel pain to the end; Gibbs would call this latter choice "palliative care".

It seems to me that the modern world is allowing less and less autonomy for citizens. What could be more basic to autonomy than the choice of whether or not to live your own life? Sane persons who are not being coerced should have the right to check out on their own schedule. But, believe me, the thought has not crossed my mind. I'm having too much fun on this side of the curtain.


Anonymous said...

I reluctantly agree.

It's hard for me to say "Hooray for suicide!" but there are times when that might be the best of several awful alternatives.

thimscool said...

Hmmmm. I can't agree that this is ok. If someone is able to commit suicide, that is one thing. But what you are really suggesting is that people (doctors) should legally be able to facilitate suicide. I think not.

It is slight of hand to act like this is about patient rights... I'm not buying it. You are talking about the doctor's right, and ultimately societies right to facilitate suicide... and that is a slippery slope.

OTOH, I fully support the right of a patient to refuse care, and I think that every adult should have a living will to specify how they want to go out.

Mine says that if I am in a persistent vegetative state with no hope for recovery (doctor's opinion interpreted by my surviving family) that they should pull the feeding tube or other life support and let nature take its course. Pain meds are ok, of course, if it looks like someone is suffering...

Lifehiker said...

Oh, yeah. I have a living will,too. But every person over the age of 50 or so with serious health problems should also have a "Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment" (MOLST) form, which describes the kind of treatment they want in an emergency - in other words, what they want the paramedic and the emergency department to do. This form can prevent responders from trying to resusitate a person who has had a heart attack or a severe stroke,for example. To be blunt - "just let me die in peace!".

As a long time EMT with lots of experience with death, I educate lots of oldsters about this. Personally, when I'm ready to go I want to die with some dignity.

Also as a long time EMT, I know that there are conditions worse than death. Doctors know that,too, and many people are already assisted into the next world by their friendly MD. We just don't talk about it.

"Life" is something that our genes tell us we should protect very diligently, but sometimes the difficulties of protecting are so onerous that it's not worth it. Should I ever reach that point, I want to check out with my head held high, looking forward to whatever lies ahead.