April 24, 2024

Deciding to Die

From the NY Times:

Modern medicine can keep people alive into their 9th and 10th decades, when in years past they would have succumbed to any number of conditions. Now a small but growing number of these people are asking why. What is the point of living so long if you can no longer enjoy living? What is the point of living until your mind turns to marshmallow and you are reduced to an existence that is less than human?

Why shouldn’t an emotionally sound, thoughtful person be able to call it quits when life has dragged on too long? When there is nothing to gain and much to lose from an ongoing existence?

Good question. 

Gloria C. Phares:

“I was healthy until 90, and then Boom! Atrial fibrillation; deaf, can’t enjoy music or hear a voice unless 10 inches from my ear; fell, fractured my thigh and am now a cripple; had a slight stroke the day after my beloved husband died after 61 years of marriage.

“I’ve lived a happy life, but from here on out it’s all downhill. Is there any point in my living any longer? I’m not living — just existing. I very much want to die, but our society doesn’t let me. Oh for a pill to ease myself out and end my pain, pain, pain.”

Cases like this are so sad.  Should Mrs. Phares be forced to live out an existence that is a painful burden to her? 

I have to admit that I’ve never understood why people answer "Yes" to that question.  It makes no sense to me, particularly when coming from Christians, that a person’s life must be prolonged past the point that the pain and infirmity can be tolerated.

Yes, Paul wrote about suffering for the Lord as a virtue,  But there is a difference, I think, between the pain of a young or middle-aged man hard at work pursuing a great and mighty goal and that of an elderly person confined to a death bed, artificially held there for months or years by the forces of social custom and modern medicine. 

That difference is elusive, but seems to be largely made up of hope for the future and the capacity for choice.  Paul could have given up his burden at any time, had he so desired.  The people whose stories grace this article do not have that luxury.

More from the article:

My high school biology teacher was 94 when I visited him at an assisted-living center. Though physically independent and medically well, he was not happy. Gesturing toward a dining room of people in various stages of physical and mental debility, he said: “I feel like my mind is going, and I don’t want to end up like them. While I still can, I want to be able to check myself out. Will you help me?”

And more:

Ida was a loving, funny, delightful human being. She was also a no-nonsense, take-charge person. So when Ida’s life had become a series of debilitating medical crises — “Every day is bad,” she said — she asked her daughter to help her end it.

“Mother,” Ms. Rollin responded, “is that really what you want — to die?”

“Of course I want to die,” Ida said. “Next to the happiness of my children, I want to die more than anything in the world.”

And still more:

I thought about my mother, who died at 49, a year after learning she had advanced ovarian cancer. When it was clear that no therapy could save her, when her life had been reduced to pointless treatments and prolonged hospital stays, she twice tried to end it, first by slitting her wrists and later by drinking rubbing alcohol.

Twice, to my 16-year-old thinking, her life was saved. But when I grew up, I asked myself, saved for what? More misery, an increasingly bleak future with no hope for recovery? If I were in a similar position, would I want to be rescued?

I think not.  Several years ago a good friend’s father had a stroke and his mental capacity was virtually completely extinguished.  During his father’s prolonged physical decline, he and I agreed that we would want help out of a similar situation if we were ever to be in his father’s place.  After over five years of watching his father waste away, how can anyone dispute my friend’s right make to that decision for himself?


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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