(This post may severely upset some of my friends. Don’t worry, everything’s fine.)
You’re living on a ventilator, your mind completely gone. If it weren’t for the expensive machinery surrounding you, you’d be dead. Is it dignified to keep preserving your life, with no hope of reviving? Or is it more dignified to allow you to die?
If you’re suffering from a terminal illness, and you can still think clearly, I think you should have the right to choose when and how you stop living. What prompted me to think about the subject recently was Terry Pratchett’s documentary for the BBC titled “Choosing to Die.”
Terry Pratchett, perhaps the best living fantasist today, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. Since then, he’s written three more Discworld novels, developed documentaries for the BBC, and began a collaboration with fellow Brit, and science fiction author, Stephen Baxter, the first book of which is to appear in 2012. He’s kept busy, even though he’s lost his ability to type (he dictates through speech-to-text software and to his assistant) and, unfortunately, sometimes forgets what he’s written the day before.
In 2009, Pratchett wrote in London’s Daily Mail, “I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand…” [Full article]
In “Choosing to Die, ” Pratchett interviews two British citizens who have chosen to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. Both have been suffering from terminal diseases and are determined to die before rather their diseases ravage them beyond the ability to make a clear, sound choice. The group they have chosen to assist them is Dignitas.
The film-makers recorded the death of one of the interviewees, a man suffering from motor neuron disease, but mercifully do not show it. We only hear his last moments as the camera shows Pratchett watching, emotionally overcome by the man’s death. At the documentary’s end, we are left wondering if Pratchett will eventually take that last step himself. He has argued for the legalization of assisted suicide in England, but fears it will not become legal in time for him. He is seriously thinking that he may travel to Switzerland again some time in the future.
In the United States, three states allow assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. The process requires significant documentation and specific procedures: a doctor is required to approve the request, the medication must be self-administered, the requestor’s life-span has to be measured in months, and so on. While it’s true that Dr. Jack Kevorkian served jail time for his role in assisting suicides, there are those who fully supported his efforts. And I’m not just talking about the “right to die” groups like Death With Dignity or The Final Exit Network.
Still, it’s a touchy subject, with many religious, ethical, and societal arguments to be made for and against it. Some are explored in the Assisted Suicide article on Wikipedia and on many, many other websites.
In 1983, my father died from throat cancer. In eight months, the cancer spread from his throat, to his lungs, and then to his bones. He was diagnosed in October of the previous year, underwent chemo and radiation, but to no avail. I was working and attending graduate school out of town, so I couldn’t be in town for him. I visited a couple times between that October and the following Spring. In May, I got the fateful call, and my spouse drove us homeward — 340 miles — in under five hours. Dad couldn’t speak, but he cried as I sat beside his hospital bed and looked into his eyes. Two days later, he died while I was holding his hand.
During part of that time, he was in obvious distress and discomfort. No one should have to go like that. He should have been able to choose a more dignified death, at a time that suited him. That is, if he so chosen to die in that way.
That’s all I ask. That we all have that right, should we choose.