I really do believe there is suffering worse than death, which is why I read about Jack Kevorkian’s death Friday with conflicted feelings. Kevorkian brought assisted suicide to the national consciousness; his name became synonymous with hastening death. I don’t agree with all of the stunts he pulled over the years, but I believe his basic premise is sound: People have the right to choose the way they die. You see many people touting the “right to life,” but no such movement exists for “right to death,” which I think is equally important.
There are diseases that cause unimaginable pain and suffering, conditions that even modern medicine can’t cure or suppress completely. There are diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, which degenerate the body while leaving the mind intact, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s that attack the brain and leave the body intact. Some people are strong enough to survive multiple recurrences of cancer and keep fighting for one more year of life. Some are not. Who are we to judge whether someone else has suffered enough? Someone who has gone through 10 rounds of chemotherapy for a terminal cancer, and now just wants to end the pain? I believe the quality of life is more important than the quantity of life. If someone has a terminal diagnosis and will be in agony whether she undergoes treatment or not, why are we so determined that she live those extra six months if she doesn’t want to?
This kind of thinking comes up a lot in the reproductive rights movement. Anti-choice activists don’t care that a developing fetus is shown to have no brain, or organs outside its body. If there’s a chance — hell, most of the time they don’t care that there isn’t a chance — that fetus could live for two minutes outside the mother’s body, it shouldn’t be aborted. Even if it causes the mother and father unrelenting anguish. Even if there’s no amniotic fluid to cushion the fetus. A chance at “life,” however short, trumps all else.
The Terri Schiavo case was heartbreaking on both sides. But it was clear she had no quality of life. Machines were keeping her alive. Her husband believed she wouldn’t want that kind of existence and sought to give her peace. The real Terri had died 15 years earlier, and all that was left was her shell. This was supported by her autopsy, which showed massive, irreversible brain damage. I believe her husband made a humane, ethical decision based on what he thought she would want.
This isn’t to say I think every person with brain damage or a disability should be euthanized. I’m not advocating a perfect, neurotypical society or “death panels” that judge the elderly and infirm. But in cases such as Terri’s, where doctors say someone is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, I believe death should be an option for families to choose for their loved ones. We already allow DNR orders. Is it that much of a stretch to reject life support or permit physician-assisted suicide?
This is understandably a controversial issue, with passionate beliefs on each side, and great attention must be paid to the ethics of assisted suicide. People who suffer from depression that could be alleviated with medication shouldn’t be allowed to end their lives. We also shouldn’t allow the disabled or elderly to be preyed upon or pressured to choose such an option. However, if you face a terminal illness with months or years of pain ahead of you, who am I to deny you the right to die in peace?
Death is the inevitable outcome of life. With our medical and technological advances, we have been able to prevent death and prolong life when even 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been possible. But sometimes I think we go too far in the pursuit of life at any cost. Families can exhaust their resources pursuing the latest experimental treatment on the slim chance that their loved one’s illness will be cured. Some have the financial, physical and emotional reserves to chase after miracles, and more power to them. Most don’t. For their sake, maybe we should start portraying death as a natural process that shouldn’t be feared.