Friday, January 18, 2008

Dignified Living or Death With Dignity?

I had a conversation the other day about the Death with Dignity law in Oregon. This person basically said to me, "I am totally with you on valuing the life of the unborn innocents. But if somebody is sick and they have just had enough and they want to be done, what's the big deal? Sometimes dying is just a lot easier than going on living." Well, YEAH. Sometimes it is. 

Words mean things. "Dignity" means "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect." I don't know about  you, but when I see someone like Joni Erickson Tada or Christopher Reeve, living his or her life to the fullest though paralyzed from the neck down, I see great living dignity. They are completely worthy of honor and respect. When I see somebody who struggles through pain and adversity and yet spends their last days enjoying the company of their loved ones, I see dignity. When I see somebody who struggles with depression and despair - even thoughts of death, only to ask for help and pull out of the darkness, I see dignity. When I see a person in the hospital with no visitors and no family, suffering from a debilitating disease... and they take the opportunity to use what's left of their life to be an inspiration to the nursing staff, I see dignity. 

But when a person looks at their life and says, "I'm sick. I'm tired of being sick. This life is not even fun anymore. It's painful, I'm costing my family money, and I'm worried that all I am is a burden. Please, doctor. Give me some lethal medication so that I might die," I don't see where a society should honor and respect that. Not only do I not see dignity, I see a dangerous slippery slope that could easily lead us back to Nazi Germany. 

"Oh, stop with the theatrical Nazi talk," you say. Yes, I will give you that. Invoking Nazi Germany is well overdone. But don't let me lose you here!! Please... keep reading.

First of all, we need to establish that there is a clear difference between requesting "no resuscitation" and taking a lethal dose of pills. There is also a clear difference between not resuscitating and not feeding. I am not suggesting that it is the responsibility of medical personnel and/or patients themselves to artificially extend anyone's life. I also want to be clear that feeding someone is not artificially extending a person's life any more than feeding your baby is doing the same.

What happens when a person becomes less important than the family's wishes? The case of Terri Schaivo comes to mind. Terri Schiavo was clearly not in a mental condition that would allow her to have a self sustaining life. Terri's husband wanted her to die, Terri's parents wanted her to live. Yes, it's really that simple. Going into the legal arguments of the case would make things more complicated, but we're not dealing with legalities here - we're dealing with morality and the idea of dignity. Terri's husband claimed that Terri would not have wanted to live that way, Terri's parents claimed that she would have valued life at any stage and in her then-current condition. Terri was starved to death by court order. Is there dignity in that?

I once had a widow over to my home for dinner whom I did not know very well. Over dinner, she began to talk about her experience with her late husband. Apparently, he had brain cancer which was taking away his ability to "be himself." She explained to me that her husband wasn't even acting like himself anymore... it was like he was a different person entirely, mean and abusive. So they stopped feeding him. This is how he died. I was floored - and I remember thinking at the time, "She just told me that she killed her husband." 

In Oregon's Death With Dignity law, financial considerations are a perfectly viable reason for requesting the lethal medication. How far a jump do we have to make to say that a government-run health care plan might also consider finances in making decisions on whether a patient should live or die? Does it seem like too far a jump? Why? It has been done before... and from there spawned the Holocaust. 

Perhaps our society has vilified the Nazis so much and so effectively that we have painted them in our minds as the devil himself, an evil untouchable by common humanity. Never forget that the Nazis were human beings just like us; imperfect people capable of coming down on the side of evil. To think that we are somehow better than they is an arrogance that will disable our ability to learn the most valuable lesson available from that time in history: that human beings are capable of anything.

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