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?

Point of View Columns

A New York State of Mind

As you are reading this column the New York State legislature will have passed a budget that contains over $10 billion in spending cuts. The budget largely reflects proposals from recently elected New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and it appears that the New York budget scenario is being played out in state capitals across the country.

A few facts – Governor Cuomo is the son of the historically liberal former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and worked for the historically progressive former President Bill Clinton as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was elected as the progressive alternative and antidote to the toxic right wing of the right wing gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano.

The public in New York and throughout the country has understood that local, state and federal budgets are in need of reformation and restructuring. The damage wrought by the great economic collapse of 2008 cannot be overstated.

Years of treating taxation as punishment instead of part of the price that all people (and corporations) pay for living in a civil society has created unsustainable imbalances that have to be rectified.

The turning point in these fiscal discussions has been focused upon whether these budget battles are going to be about dollars and sense or will they be about reforming the social and political landscape in this country. There are those who are willing to pursue a prudent social services agenda while also being fiscally prudent.

And then there are those who are willing to use the public sector fiscal crisis as a Trojan horse that will permit entry inside the gates built by a century of progressive reform so that they can begin to dismantle the safety nets for all citizens.
The New York state budget is a case in point.

Governor Cuomo and the legislature have determined that no tax increases are possible. Indeed, in the new budget any New York citizen who makes over $200,000 per year will get a tax cut. Meanwhile statewide aid for education will be cut by $1.25 billion and Medicaid benefits will be cut by $2.8 billion.

And certainly, and most clearly, the citizens of New York who earn the least, who own the least and who control the least will be the ones who will bear the brunt of these budget cuts.

This scenario is being replayed from Wisconsin to California to Washington, D.C. The balanced budget mantra is overlaid with the themes of reducing the tax obligations of the wealthiest Americans (and corporations) and reducing the services provided to citizens, especially the citizens with the fewest resources and the greatest need.

There is an empty and heartless meanness to this approach that transcends the numbers and figures that are in a budget discussion. The suggestion that it somehow makes sense that a corporate behemoth like General Electric has a final tax bill of zero while Headstart programs are closed and veterans’ benefits are cut is difficult to comprehend.

Just as no one is entitled to great wealth, no one is entitled to unnecessary hardship and misery – particularly in a country with the highest standard of living in the history of the Planet Earth.

The sense of community that brings citizens together into a caring and cohesive entity is clearly fraying. Perhaps this is attributable to the fact that the sense of shared obligation has been diluted to a point that it is hardly noticeable.

Spending has been supported at the local, state and federal level for everything from football stadiums to bridges to nowhere and the taxation consequences have been largely deferred or ignored.

As is the case for every celebration, there is a bill that has to be paid. It would seem logical, fair and patriotic that those who have benefited the most from American society would have to pay their fair share of the cost of that society.

The constant caterwauling about “no new taxes” might make sense in some other circumstance, but not during a time of crisis. That point seems to be lost upon those who see taxes as punitive and view cutting social services as the only logical choice.

Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II learned about shared responsibility and common sacrifice out of necessity. And out of that necessity was born the G.I. Bill and the beginning of the largest middle class expansion in world history up to that point.

That sense of shared responsibility and common sacrifice resulted in everything from the national highway initiative to the Great Society to landmark civil rights bills.

If you wonder if any of those bills would pass today you only need to look at the scorched earth that resulted from the debate and passage of the recent healthcare bill and you will have your answer.

Blanche Dubois was probably wrong to depend on the kindness of strangers. But I do believe that Americans should be able to depend on the compassion and concern of their fellow citizens.