While we’ve discussed end of life decisions and physician assisted suicide here in the past, I’ve always found the ensuing discussions among our readers and other writers weighing in on the subject to be heavily weighted in terms of defining what “the conservative position” on the subject is. The last time we tackled the issue together it primarily revolved around the case of Brittany Maynard, the young woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon so she could end her life on her own terms. There’s been plenty of time for that story to sink into the national consciousness since then and the nation seems to remain firmly divided on the question. But this week George Will – not exactly known for being a liberal – has chimed in with his own feelings and he seems to find some room in his heart for compassion when it comes to those making such decisions.
Physician-assisted dying has been done surreptitiously “as long as we have been practicing medicine,” says Cederquist, professor of internal medicine at the University of California at San Diego. Today, even in the 46 states without physician-assisted dying, doctors may legally offer “terminal sedation” — say, a life-shortening dose of morphine — when intense physical suffering cannot otherwise be satisfactorily alleviated. Some Catholic and other ethicists endorse a “double effect” standard: If the intent is to alleviate suffering but a consequence is death, the intent justifies the act.
Cederquist says the most common reason for requesting assistance in dying is not “intolerable physical suffering.” Rather, it is “existential suffering,” including “loss of meaning,” as from the ability to relate to others. The prospect of being “unable to interact” can be as intolerable as physical suffering and cannot be alleviated by hospice or other palliative care.
Will brings up a different case than Maynard’s, specifically the one involving Jennifer Glass. I was rather taken with a quote from her when she addressed California state legislators shortly before her death. “I’m doing everything I can to extend my life. No one should have the right to prolong my death.”
It’s a powerful argument, and one made by many patients when faced with such a difficult choice. Recently, Stephanie O’neill at CNN took a fresh look at the writings of Dr. Ken Murray, which I examined here at Hot Air last year. Rather than looking at the wishes and needs of patients versus the reaction to their plight from their legislators, Murry did some extensive research into how doctor’s themselves choose to die. It’s a telling analysis which shows that the same professionals who make available to the rest of us every means under the sun to squeeze the last few moments of life out of our existence rarely choose such drastic options for themselves.
“I fit with the vast majority that want to have a gentle death, and don’t want extraordinary measures taken when they have no meaning,” Murray says.
A majority of seniors report feeling the same way. Yet, they often die while hooked up to life support. And only about one in 10 doctors report having conversations with their patients about death.
One reason for the disconnect, says Dr. Babak Goldman, is that too few doctors are trained to talk about death with their patients. “We’re trained to prolong life,” he says.
All persuasive arguments, but I don’t want to give the impression that I haven’t heard the arguments from the other side in this discussion. One of the most common is the idea of a slippery slope which could lead to death panels or simply cases where doctors take the easy way out for patients less able to pay their bills. In my experience, slippery slopes are very real and we ignore them at our peril. But returning to George Will’s piece, he acknowledges the same and yet still comes up with an admirable answer.
Today’s culture of casual death (see the Planned Parenthood videos) should deepen worries about a slippery slope from physician-assisted dying to a further diminution of life’s sanctity. Life, however, is inevitably lived on multiple slippery slopes: Taxation could become confiscation, police could become instruments of oppression, public education could become indoctrination, etc. Everywhere and always, civilization depends on the drawing of intelligent distinctions.
In the end, Will makes a good case for recognizing the needs and beliefs of people on both sides of the argument. He talks about the nobility in suffering bravely borne, while at the same time citing the distinctive human dignity of autonomous choice. It’s no doubt one of the most painful choices many people will ever make, but in the end, isn’t that what this is all about? It should not be the place of the government to tell you when you should die, but at the same time are we to place the power in the government’s hands to tell you that you must go on living under terminal distress? In the end it’s not the government who will hold you accountable for the path you choose. That will come down to you and the Almighty.
Food for thought this weekend.