Point of View Columns

Whose Death is it?

A bill was recently introduced in the New York State legislature that would in effect permit doctors to assist patients who wished to commit suicide due to terminal illness. Unfortunately, but predictably, the usual suspects immediately announced their opposition to the bill and in the process, their self-righteous support for enforced suffering.

End of life care and the decisions attending that care are deeply personal and understandably complicated. These decisions are further complicated by medical technology that can keep a person alive for what can seem like forever to the seriously ill patients and their families. Ironically, and sadly, we are at a point where we know how to keep people alive indefinitely but there are no generally accepted protocols in this country regarding the ending of life.

As a result, these personal decisions have to be made in a maze of contradictory laws, protocols and procedures. We have progressed to the point where a patient can appoint a proxy to make certain decisions regarding the cessation of so-called “extraordinary care” which can result in the patient’s death. But anyone who has ever had to make that decision knows that it is a heart breaking and soul wrenching journey to a land where there are no easy answers or happy endings.

It should be no surprise that people who are seriously ill would want to spare their family and loved ones from this ordeal. It should also be no surprise that anyone who is terminally ill may not wish to have their family and loved ones witness the last stages of physical diminishment and devastation that precede death, especially when recovery is simply not possible.

Opponents of pro-active end of life strategies probably congratulate themselves on their graciousness in supporting pain relief for the terminally ill. But there are terminally ill patients that simply do not wish to walk the torture gauntlet of pain and fear as certain death inexorably approaches.

No one suggests that these are decisions that should be made lightly. There comes a time when medical science can no longer provide a person with the quality of life that every individual deserves. It is at that time that medical science – and society – should be permitted to assist a person if they request to die with dignity at a time of their choosing.

What is astounding is the presumption of religious leaders, ethicists and politicians who would consider themselves entitled to intrude into these deeply personal and unquestionably intimate decisions. It is difficult enough for an individual to confront a terminal diagnosis. It is painful enough for the family and loved ones of that individual to have to come to terms with that reality. And it is at that precise moment in the life of a person when assisted suicide can be a true act of mercy, if that is the will of that person.

By what right, by what notion of moral superiority, by what conceit does that religious leader, ethicist or politician even consider substituting their judgment of how a person should live or die? More to the point, who conferred upon them the power to determine precisely what constitutes enough suffering….suffering by the patient, suffering by the family.

We should have no problem with anyone following the teachings of a religious leader, ethicist or politician. But we should be shocked and offended that anyone would impose their vision of morality on a person who chooses to day. After all, whose death is it?

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One thought on “Whose Death is it?

  1. Linda says:

    Thank you for your commentary, Wallace. It’s always well-articulated, insightful, and on point. You remind me of our messenger Malcolm: intellligent, courageous; speaking truth to power. Keep educating, teaching, training — feeding us!

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