The thought of dying begins to creep into our train of thought almost daily when we reach retirement age. That we are naturally nearer to it than at any other time becomes even more evident as we catch ourselves reviewing the obituaries and see people our age and younger passing away. It’s a disconcerting reflection we have that the earth will one day reclaim us, but for a growing few, Walt Whitman’s perception is most valid; “Nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” Whitman’s romantic take on dying appeals to many aged and physically handicapped people whose current state is that death would indeed be a release from their living hell on earth as they see it and earnestly desire to end their own life with dignity.
If free will exists, as many religious faiths believe, then it would be a given that God allows all things to occur by free will, including the deaths of innocent victims caught up in mankind’s social, religious and political agendas. One can’t argue that bad things happen to good people because it is God’s unfathomable will and then turn around and restrict the free will of people whose actions hurt no one except perhaps themselves. Many have chosen to take their own lives for reasons incomprehensible to those who remain but there are also those who wish life to cease as they know it for very apparent reasons. How is God NOT involved in these isolated incidences but involved with mass murder? Can society rule that ending a life that has taken a life is the will of God anymore than they can say it’s not God’s will to allow a rape victim to terminate an unwanted pregnancy or a suicide of one suffering immeasurable pain?
Devoutly religious people, led by their theological leaders often have to wrestle with such views based on extractions from ancient scriptures that are not specifically recognized equally by all who read them. Thus we are confronted with social dilemmas where a person’s faith may reject an individual’s decision to end their own life. This dilemma has recently been personified by one Lawrence Egbert who is currently charged in the states of Georgia and Arizona for assisting in the suicides of two people in those states.
According to a Newsweek article on Egbert by Sarah Kliff and Arian Campo-Flores (3/15/10), “Supporters hail him as a hero who offers the sick a measure of autonomy. Critics denounce him as a killer who assumes God-like powers and prods desperate people to their deaths.” But this latter denunciation by his critics is weakened by this logic where doctors could also be viewed as people who assume God-like powers to sustain a life where it would not otherwise survive but for the action of a doctor. Obviously saving lives and preventing death by medical professionals is desirable with younger and healthier people who face life-threatening conditions not of their own free will. But don’t older people whose quality of life has passed and those who suffer unspeakable pain from disease or deformity have not only the right to refuse such “God-like” intervention, as is the case in most states, but be allowed to end their life by their own hand?
Dr. Egbert, founder of the right-to-die organization, Final Exit Network (FEN), its medical director and a former anesthesiologist, is being depicted by many as the new Dr. Death, replacing Dr. Jack Kevorkian of this dark label, who went to prison years back for one of his many assisted suicides. But unlike Kevorkian, Egbert or any who voluntarily assist with FEN are actually not present to assist the individual who has chosen to end their life. Egbert’s credo, found on his website at www.finalexitnetwork.org states that “mentally competent adults have a basic human right to end their lives when they suffer from a fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain, when their quality of life is personally unacceptable, and the future holds only hopelessness and misery.”
FEN is there as a source of information to guide people to end their lives who so choose but only after they have been rigorously interviewed and met strict criteria that prevents just anyone ending their life who is feeling “blue” on any given day. According to the web-site, “safeguards are in place to insure that the person’s decision is voluntary and repeatedly stated.” Specific details can be found on their “Exit Guide Program Criteria” link.
Dr. Egbert is also dedicated to raising awareness to what he feels is a basic human right, much like civil rights, women’s suffrage and the rights of the disabled. The stigma associated with suicides is a prevailing state of mind in most cultures, especially for those who dread the loss of someone close to them. Those who remain behind not only suffer emotionally but are often adherents to the dogma of their religious faiths that teach about there being no good reward in the hereafter for people who take their own life. This becomes another gray area for many when such rigid perceptions are challenged by events where terminally ill patients elect to refuse medical treatment (known as passive euthanasia), or parents give their life for their children, or the soldier who throws himself/herself on the exploding grenade to save their compatriots.
The right-to-die issue appears to be growing around the world too, perhaps because more people are facing the inevitability of death as the baby-boom generation draws ever closer to what Hobbes call the “last voyage, a great leap in the dark.” When four FEN volunteers were arrested in a raid in February, 2009 many outsiders came to their financial aid and also offered emotional support. Derek Humphry, FEN’s Advisory Board Chair noted on their web-site that “a total of $130,000 was raised, even though contributions were not tax deductible.” It was more than enough to clear their legal debts that arose from charges in Georgia.
Despite the fact that the federal government prohibits the use of federal funding for doctor assisted suicides under the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, Washington and Oregon have right-to-die legislation that includes physician assisted suicide with other states like Montana reviewing current laws that prohibit it. However unless you are a resident of a state or a foreign country that allows doctor assisted suicide you will not be allowed to go there for that intent if you remain a citizen elsewhere. The exception to this is an organization in Switzerland known as Dignitas.
This organization was the topic of discussion for a PBS Frontline program recently, The Suicide Tourist. It documented the gut-wrenching last days of Craig Ewert as he and his wife went through the process of assisted suicide. Interviews with the children and the people involved at Dignitas gave a broad perspective on what is involved in the only place where most people can currently go to die with dignity without a residency requirement. Craig had ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, where all organs and motor skills shut down, leaving people completely dependent on others to assist them with the most basic of bodily functions. The ultimate and painful result of the disease is the suffocation a patient experiences as their lungs give out. Craig made the decision to go to Dignitas before it was too late for the remaining part of his body, the ability to sip fluids through a straw, was denied him from this disease. As a part of the process at Dignitas, the client had to actuate the means by which they would die. For Mr. Ewert, it was taking in a toxic concoction that a physician with Dignitas had put together for him.
Life is a precious gift and when we see it starting to leave us we all are reluctant to allow the inevitable to occur. But after we have gone through Kubler-Ross’ stages of denial we make peace with ourselves and those we leave behind. For those who so choose death by passive euthanasia the legal hurdles do not exist and are often fortunate that death comes quickly once their fate has been determined by the medical profession. But for the thousands who must endure anguish and unbearable physical pain before death comes knocking on their door there is only suffering heaped on the knowledge that it gets worse each day. For those of us who have witnessed the civil rights movement in the 60’s, women braking the glass barriers in the ‘80s and communist countries crashing down following the removal of the Berlin wall just two decades ago, the right-to-die movement is viewed as a part of the spirit of personal freedom these earlier movements evoked.
The value of life isn’t based entirely on efforts to preserve it. If that were an absolute there would be greater efforts to avoid wars, death penalties would not exist and the civilized world would join as one to fight the forces of evil in Darfur, Rwanda and all other known areas where genocide occurred and continues to occur around the world. But the value of life does include heroic efforts to preserve it where we can and have. What we have a hard time facing is coming to grips with our sense of life lost apart from less dramatic and evil forces we often can’t control. Active euthanasia is caught up in this human emotion that feels compelled to honor the beliefs of personal faith and the hope that somehow miracles still happen. Most of us are in accordance with this sentiment. What we are missing though is that it is not we who have to endure the daily physical pain of a terminal disease or the inability to address our own bodily functions as we lay in our own excrement until someone comes to change us. Until we realize we are unwitting enforcers of torture - impediments to someone dying with dignity – those who we cherish the most will continue to suffer for reasons other than what we deem is in their best interests.