Thursday, February 10, 2011

Removing the Stigma From Mercy Killings

Bear in mind, the following documentary is not only contentious, but difficult to watch. It chronicles the last four days in the life of Craig Ewert, a university professor and ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) patient who chose to end his life with the help of the Swiss organization, Dignitas. The documentary shows Mr. Ewert drinking the sedative which will end his life and the moment when he is declared dead. Again, I encourage all adults to watch, whether you agree or disagree with Ewert's decision, but know that doing so is heart wrenching and difficult to bear.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

I don't even know where to begin talking about this topic, despite my strong feelings about it. But, what I'm trying to explore is whether people in free societies should be allowed to make the choice for themselves, with proper medical guidance, to end their lives.

Until recently, I had never really given the issue much consideration (also, for those who care, this has nothing to do with my current health situation. I am not considering this. I merely feel it to be an important topic). The inciting incident that caused me to start thinking about whether or not assisted suicide should be legal had nothing to do with humans. What started the gears turning in my head was having to put down my cat. Examining the logic and ethics of putting down our beloved pets, or unfamiliar animals that are merely suffering, has led me to the conclusion that for those who have reached a point in their life where living has become unbearable, as contentious as the act may be, it is a decision that a person ought to have the right to make.

Currently in the US, only three states have legalized human euthanasia- Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Several European states have adopted legalization, a fact which has led to the rise of what has been labeled "suicide tourism," where individuals from outside countries travel to a country that allows assisted suicide, or to a country with looser restrictions on it. Typically (I cannot speak too broadly because I just don't know if it is always the case) whoever goes through the process of arranging their suicide (along with those assisting) must clear a number of legal hurdles and undertake measures which ensure the law that the patient fully understands what it is they are doing, are competent to make such a decision, and have not been coerced or overly assisted (meaning the drug, and any other life-ending measures, must be carried out by the patient. The documentary above shows this).

For me, I can't say it took terribly long for me to come my own conclusion about the topic. In my mind, at least in addressing the question of legality, the equation is quite simple. What surprised me was that I hadn't given it more thought before just recently. Given my own health, and the horrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pains I suffered at the hands of my disease, I'm proud to say that I never gave suicide any consideration. But, as well, knowing what I know, seeing what I've seen, and feeling what I've felt, I find no difficulty in understanding why someone would consider it as a viable option, and in some cases, go through the arduous and costly expense of carrying it out legally.

What stirred me was a simple question- How come we can take our pets (or any animal for that matter) whom we feel are suffering needlessly, and without hope for recovery, in to a professional veterinarian, and with little to no need for approval from he or she, can end the life of the animal? Not only can we choose to end the animal's life under the right circumstances, we consider it to be the right and moral decision to make- to end the animal's suffering. However, when it comes to extending the same right to human beings (the right to kill an individual to ease their suffering) we, more often than not, deny them the right, and consider doing so to be immoral.

Is it because, as Craig Ewert contended, that people feel as if doing so is "playing God?" Is it because, as the Catholic Church believes, that it is a mortal sin? Maybe it's because people fear that loosening restrictions on the act opens the door too broadly for people to carry it out with reckless abandon, such as severely depressed individuals who, while suffering, could probably receive aid and continue living a good (or good-enough) life. Is human life just inherently more valuable than an animals?

In regard to the last question, I would say that many people, driven by a wide range of elements, would answer: "Yes, human life is inherently more valuable than an animal's." That is generally a point I would not argue against. Given that, as human beings, by virtue of the fact that we are the most mentally sophisticated and dominant species on the planet and are, thus, stewards of the world, we are more valuable. We have the ability (though rarely ever the will) to steer our planet, nature, and society in a better direction. However, what if an individual loses that ability, as in the case of Craig Ewert, whose paralysis was induced by his ALS? His paralysis left him crippled more than just physically. In his final days, he could no longer teach, nor barely move to even get around. The question is not to suggest that unhealthy or mentally challenged people are worthless; they are not, just look at Steven Hawking. But when a man comes to value his own life so little and when there is no hope for healing to occur, as was Ewert's circumstance, what value is this person to the world? Life for the mere sake of a beating heart is not life at all. If there is no person inside the flesh, what good is the flesh?

Additionally, before the thought enters your mind, I am not advocating killing the disabled, be they mentally or physically handicapped. But if a person with a competent mind makes it up that he would like to defy nature and choose when he'll pass, he ought to be allowed to do so without breaking the law. If he places no value on his life, or not enough to justify remaining, by what authority do we deny him the dignity of such a choice?

Are we playing God when we intervene to end a person's life before nature has dictated it? Perhaps. However, are we not similarly doing so whenever we take a Tylenol for a headache, or whenever we use modern medicine to intervene to save a life as opposed to taking it. The fact of the matter is that we have minds, and whoever or whatever has granted us the ability to apply our knowledge scientifically for the benefit of our species and the world, whenever we do so, we act as arbitrators of our own destiny, as gods. But, perhaps this is not the actual gripe those making this argument mean to make. Maybe "playing god" is not the problem, but rather choosing to end life rather than rescue it.

The issue, in part, comes down to human dignity and human rights. I do not have Lou Gehrig's Disease, but I can sympathize with Craig Ewert's position, to a limited extent. In the months leading up to my transplant, as my lung function dropped to a point where being mobile was not as easy to do, and as I continually lost weight in the battle against the multiple chronic infections raging inside my body, I began to see an image of myself as something of a shell- immobile, lying in bed at all hours of the day, unable to lift my own body weight, and dependent on others to do everything for me from cooking to cleaning my ass. It is not a life I would have chosen to live. However, I would not have given up so long as the possibility for transplant was real. Another patient who was there in the hospital at the same time as myself, and who had gone trough transplantation the previous spring, never gave up. All the way till he passed away, he maintained hope that he would be matched with a new set of lungs. Sadly, it wasn't to be. He passed away shortly after I received mine.

But what if there is no hope of recovery? What if there is no life saving medical treatment, and you know you are destined for a slow and agonizing death? I submit that the truly immoral act would be to deny that person the dignity to carry out one final defiant act so that he or she may retain some shred of dignity as well as end their pain. During my ordeal, I was forced to discard all expectations of dignity, if I was to be transplanted, that is simply how it must be. I allowed myself to be exposed to people who, under normal circumstances would never have even been allowed to see myself in my underwear, let alone naked. I received suppositories, had people wipe my ass, let them see me nude (those gowns are designed for quick and easy access to the patient's body). Making it bearable was the knowledge that it was not definitive- that episode was going to end, and I would reclaim my dignity at some point. But when that lifestyle is all that remains- suffering the indignities of not being able to contribute to your household, having to rely on others for your needs, such as bathing or even taking a bowel movement- coupled with having to bear on your heart, day in and day out, the reality that you are going to die anyway, just in a more painful and extended manner, it is right and just to grant them that last and most important of choices, without the shame of hiding from the law and becoming a criminal with your final act in this world. Denying them the piece of mind they seek is the sin.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Josh. I agree with you on every point. I watched my father suffer the indignity of hospitalization and all that went with it in his final days of lung cancer. Just weeks ago I watched my brother die. The fact is he was probably dead a day before, according to his own living will, which explained if his brain stem was irreparable from damage (he suffered a massive stroke from his carotid artery), that he would not want life support. So on the last day, it was the multiple doses of morphine which actually killed him and the remaining function of his heart and lungs which were pounding away, fighting as if they were him.

    We all participated in the decision for the morphine. We're a medical family and we knew what our decision meant. He wasn't suffering pain because his brain function was gone. The morphine was to suppress heart and lungs so they would finally give up. We assisted in his suicide.