You know smoking causes lung cancer, but making a personal decision to smoke is your right. Drinking in access leads to a number of health concerns, but that’s your choice. Obesity by overeating? Not good, but no law can legally restrain your decision to carry too much weight. You can live where your want, and do what you want with few limitations.
That is, up until you want to shut things down and end your life. In the vast majority of states, that’s when the government takes over. You have the right to decide how you live, but you do not have the same right to decide, at least legally, when you want to end your life. Should you have such a right?
Two states, Washington and Oregon, say yes, and have passed legislation where a patient can ask a doctor for medication to end life. There are strict requirements as to the patient’ condition and are referred to as “physician assisted suicide” or death with dignity laws. Two other states, Montana and Wyoming, have no specific law, but courts have given protections to doctors who give such assistance.
In the rest of America, death is delayed with small concern for cost. Families stand by watching over love ones who force fed through tubes, and often kept alive by a number of artificial means. Instead of death being imminent, modern medicine seems to make death almost optional.
In the debate over life ending care, two notable events took place last week. In Phoenix, Arizona, a husband was convicted of shooting his wife who suffered terribly with final stage multiple sclerosis, and who would require extensive amputations because of gangrene. She begged for months to end her life. Her 86-year-old husband finally shot her to end her misery. “Your honor,” the husband addressed the judge, “I loved Ginger since she was fifteen years old and I loved her when she was 81 years old. She begged me to end her misery, and I just couldn’t watch her suffer like that.” A jury convicted him of manslaughter, but the judged, with almost unanimous family and community support, sentenced him to probation.
Former two-term Washington governor Booth Gardner also died last week. He suffered for years with Parkinson’s disease, and led the nation’s first successful voter initiative to legalize physicians assisted suicide. He said in support of the law: “There are people like me everywhere who are coping with pain – they know that's their next step is death. When death is inevitable, we shouldn’t force people to endure agonizing suffering if we don’t have to”, he said. “We have all made tough decisions throughout our lives, and we should be trusted to make tough decisions about the end of our life. It’s about autonomy, personal choice and respect. I was in control of my life. I should be allowed to be in control of my death.”
I would hope that at the end of my life, I would have the right to make my own choice. I am not afraid of facing the end of my life. Death will come. But there will be quality of life issues that all of us will face. And there will be a quality of living that will deteriorate and be tempered by both the effort and the ability to deal with both the physical wear and tear and the emotional costs. You see, from my perspective, there is a real difference between life and living.
But the system fights to keep you alive. If it takes feeding tubes, ventilators, not having any control over basic bodily functions and dealing with bedsores that will never heal because you will never leave the bed, so be it. But once this process begins, it rarely ends-until you come to an end.
I read of a doctor’ suggestion that you make a list of 100 things you do to get you through each day. Many are basic, and most are enjoyable. Taking a shower, sipping your morning coffee, taking a walk, driving to the store, brushing your teeth, calling a grandchild, and reading the morning paper. Your list could well go way beyond 100, but you can make your daily schedule for living that makes life worth living. But then, perhaps you loose the ability to do a few of these things.
That’s OK, because we all adapt. But then the list of “can’t dos” grows longer. Maybe I cannot control my destiny, but I would hope to at least be in control of my basic bodily functions and needs. I’m just not interested or willing, if I can have any say so, to being hooked up to all kinds of life assisting machines that force me to eat and breath. When the burdens of living grow past a point of miserable subsistence, and I lose the ability to experience the things on my list that matter, then, at least for me, I’ve had enough.
When I was 70, I wrote that “If there is a yin and a yang, the before and the after, what has happened and what is yet to be, then maybe getting older is a special way post for me. Hey, I could be at the top and ready for the long and relaxing ride back down.”
I’m still on that great ride. But one day, it’s going to come to an end. I just hope I will be able to set my own timelines, and make my own life and, yes, death choices on my own with out dictates from the government. Yes, I want the freedom of choice. In both living and dying.