Free­dom to kill, per­mis­sion to die

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Kath­leen Parker

— It was in­evitable that we would one day seek ways to kill our­selves with so­ci­ety’s bless­ing.

Cal­i­for­nia re­cently joined four other states — Ore­gon, Washington, Ver­mont and Mon­tana — that al­low ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients to com­mit sui­cide us­ing doc­tor-pre­scribed drugs. Cri­te­ria un­der the Cal­i­for­nia law in­clude that the pa­tient has a ter­mi­nal dis­ease, would likely die within six months, and is of sound mind and can self- ad­min­is­ter the “medicine.”

Thanks to med­i­cal ad­vances that can ex­tend life be­yond what some find ac­cept­able, re­sult­ing in un­nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing, many think it’s their right to die with dig­nity us­ing med­i­ca­tions legally pre­scribed.

It’s an easy- enough ar­gu­ment to un­der­stand. There’s a cer­tain logic and hu­man­ity to the op­tion of leav­ing life grace­fully by one’s own vo­li­tion, as long as it re­ally is.

Here, I should con­fess my own am­biva­lence. Ba­si­cally, I’d like to have the means to end my own life on my own terms when my body has clearly called it quits. I’m just not sure I like the idea of the state and doc­tors lend­ing a hand.

At least two prob­lems seem ob­vi­ous: Death dates can’t be pre­dicted with pre­ci­sion and are, there­fore, spec­u­la­tive. How of­ten have you heard that some­one has three months to live and he or she is still around two years later? And “medicine” by def­i­ni­tion means: ( 1) a sub­stance to ease pain or other symp­toms, and ( 2) a science to pre­vent, treat or cure dis­eases.

One could ar­gue that sui­cide medicine would re­lieve the pain of liv­ing through the fi­nal stages of can­cer, as an ex­am­ple. But this clearly isn’t what Mer­riam- Web­ster — or the Hip­po­cratic oath — in­tended. The pur­pose of medicine is to pre­vent ill­ness and to heal, not to end life when heal­ing isn’t pos­si­ble.

Still, what are we to do when medicine can do no more? Or when treat­ment means pro­long­ing suf­fer­ing to­ward in­evitable death? We are kinder to our pets, many would ar­gue.

Per­haps I read too many dystopian science- fic­tion nov­els dur­ing my for­ma­tive years, but there’s some­thing dis­turb­ing about ask­ing doc­tors to help their pa­tients die. Then again, we’ve al­ready asked them to de­stroy un­born hu­man life, cod­i­fy­ing the le­gal right to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy.

When the con­tin­uum of life — from con­cep­tion to nat­u­ral death


— is in­ter­rupted as a con­ve­nience to one’s in­di­vid­ual con­cept of time ( I’m not ready to be a par­ent; I’m ready to die), what else do we also ter­mi­nate? Grad­u­ally in­ured to the meta­phys­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions of such ac­tions, might we also be deny­ing our­selves ac­cess to char­ity, com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy and love?

Un­know­able in our cal­cu­la­tions is what hap­pens in the fi­nal mo­ments of life. If Ap­ple co- founder Steve Jobs, wasted away with ter­mi­nal can­cer, had de­cided to leave the party early, we might not have learned from his sis­ter, Mona Simp­son, that his fi­nal words were, af­ter star­ing for a long time at each of his fam­ily mem­bers: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I don’t know what Jobs saw, but I think I’d like to see it, too.

Trou­bling, too, is the pos­si­bil­ity that some pa­tients might feel ob­li­gated to com­mit sui­cide once the op­tion is avail­able, even though pre­scrib­ing doc­tors are en­cour­aged to tell pa­tients they don’t have to take the medicine. Many re­port­edly don’t take the pills.

But a sick per­son might want to pro­tect fam­ily mem­bers and think, oh, well, what’s an­other six months? A life­time, I should think. Can’t life be made tol­er­a­ble enough dur­ing this time to avoid mak­ing doc­tors and fam­ily mem­bers com­plicit in sui­cide?

Other ques­tions seize the mind: Will the right to die ul­ti­mately be con­sid­ered as just an­other facet of “health care,” as abortion has come to be? And when do six months be­come a year? A nov­el­ist would pro­pose that it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore a glut of el­derly peo­ple in poor health, who are by def­i­ni­tion “ter­mi­nal,” so over­whelm the health care sys­tem that “opt­ing out” be­comes an ex­pec­ta­tion rather than a choice. This would be satire, right? And satire does not a slip­pery slope make, but laws do con­di­tion val­ues. Ore­gon, which passed its right-to-die law in 1998, has the high­est sui­cide rate in the coun­try — 35 per­cent higher than the na­tional av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to an Ore­gon Health Au­thor­ity re­port.

As more than a dozen other states con­sider sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion, it isn’t ir­ra­tional to won­der whether, in tam­per­ing with our med­i­cal cul­ture of heal­ing, we aren’t invit­ing un­in­tended con­se­quences that we’ll live — or die — to re­gret.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@wash­

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