The Indignity of Assisted Suicide

Does everyone have the right to end their own life?   Talking about ‘rights’  seems a little odd in this regard.  The truth is that almost all of us have the ability to end our own lives.  But the right?  What if you are healthy and  vigorous but just tired of living?  Do you then have a ” right” to shut out the lights and prevent the State  from having any say in either how or even why it is done?

That was the question raised for me in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Edition piece Assisted Sucide Pioneer Stirs A Legal Backlash.   The article deals with the activities of  Swiss doctor, Ludwig Minelli, who has spent years helping people to die under Switzerland’s liberal assisted suicide law.  His recent lethal injections have spurred a backlash against him, resulting in venomous attacks on his operations and his company Dignitas.

Dignitas – for the Latin challenged among us, is a Roman concept which embraced the sum of the personal clout and influence a male citizen acquired throughout his life. When weighing the dignitas of a particular individual, factors such as personal reputation, moral standing, and ethical worth had to be considered, along with the man’s entitlement to respect and proper treatment.

The English word ” dignity’  is a poor cousin of this dignitas.  It is nevertheless the word that is regularly invoked by advocates of assisted suicide to describe the conditions under which an individual should be able to terminate his or her own life.

But according to this article, the conditions under which the lethal injections that Ludwig Minelli administers to his clients, are anything but dignified.

One individual who accompanied friends who decided to end their lives in the Dignitas facility, reported that it was a pretty gruesome place.

The suicides took place not in a private medical facility, but in an industrial space next to a large brothel –  just two spare rooms without a bathroom. Two Dignitas volunteers, neither a doctor, helped prepare the couple. There was just one single bed, forcing the husband to sit in a chair near his wife when the couple took the lethal dose.

It seemed like a factory,” the observer said . ” It was an awful, ugly place.”

Asssisted suicide has been the subject of heated debate in the United States for a generation.  It came to intense public attention with the trial and imprisonment of “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian who between 1990 and 1997 performed over 100 acts of euthanasia on terminally ill patients.  For his troubles Kevorkian had his medical license revoked and was prosecuted by the State, ending with  a sentence of 15 years in prison.  He was released in 2006 for good behavior.

In the course of his trials, Kevorkian made statements under oath that he considered it his duty to assist persons in their death. He indicated that because he considered laws forbidding assisted suicide were archaic and unjust, he would persist in civil disobedience, even under threat of criminal punishment.

Today only Washington State and Montana allow assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, but nowhere in the U.S. can an otherwise healthy male or female find a doctor legally qualified doctor to assist with a suicide.

Those of us who live in relative health can barely imagine what it is like to be wracked with incessant pain or so encased in a vegetative state that it is impossible to communicate with the outside world.  In such circumstances it  is natural for a person to long for death  – to be liberated from the physically and mental torture of such internal misery and isolation.

But sometimes we forget to factor in the one element that drives all human ambition and inspires determination to endure – hope.  In the darkest recesses of despair, hope is the one    A  ray of light sometimes might find its way into  the cell of a prisoner who has been forced to sit in the darkness of solitary confinement, so too even the merest glimmer of a chance that a patient’s terminal condition could  be allievated , is enough to spur an individual to recommit his morale and energies to enduring  his pain and isloation.

Such a glimmer emerged this week when doctors from specialist centers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Liège in Belgium carried out tests on 54 patients who had been comatose for some time. All had a severe brain injury; for some it was the result of lack of oxygen to the brain, while others had sustained severe trauma to the brain.

Some five of the 54 patients were able to wilfully modulate their brain activity. A single patient was able to answer yes or no to questions during functional MRI, something he was unable to do during regular bedside testing without the scan.

Although the expereiment might have had only nominal success of the experiment( remember 49 of the patients did not respond at all ), the fact that five did is a symbol of the hope that all human beings need to endure tragedy.

That some of these patients could respond intheir vegetative state throws up the question that medical researhcers, theologians and philosophers have been asking for centuries: where does brain activity end and mindfulness begin?  Because if there is such a thing as “mind” which operates outside the brain then those in  a vegetative state or even in extreme pain can said to be “living,” even if in a realm beyond our understanding.

In such circumstances it is murder to kill them as Ludwig Minelli did and Jack Kervorkian might have done and manslaughter to do it even with the patients’ permission.

We still so little about life – how it begins and how it ends – and we are not a liberty to play dice with it.  That privilege belongs to a higher realm than we occupy of this earth.

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