Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death?

Mention the word death, and a single image springs to mind – the ending of life. Depending on culture, religion or other similar views, it can have many connotations. For some, it can mean simply the end of a life, coupled with the process of grief and coping that accompanies such loss. For others, it can represent a glorious extension of, and beyond, this life into the next that is to be honored and rejoiced. However, death for a growing number means only one thing – the end of suffering, for them and their loved ones, by means of euthanasia, otherwise known as “assisted suicide.” It is a choice that many have made, and that a majority of Americans support. Aside from the moral debate, the question is can that choice ever be reconciled with the legal challenges facing it?

Naturally, the average person does not want to die. After all, that is the secret to life – not dying. With funerals that cost the price of an average car, who wants to die in the first place? Still, many people in extreme cases refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. Such was the case for Teri Schiavo, the Florida woman who laid in a vegetative state for years and sparked a landmark legal case over the right-to-die. In such instances, an individual has only to state their wishes, such as in a living will, in a clear and mentally competent way. In Schiavo’s case, her intentions were the center of the case as she had no living will. In essence, the person is making a legal contract for their future suicide should it be necessary. What then is the difference between refusing life-sustaining treatment, often communicated through a second party, and assisted suicide, both of which produce the same fate?

The moral argument against euthanasia is ambiguous, as many cultures and religions consider suicide honorable and respectable. The classic example is the samurai warrior taking his own life in the name of honor and duty. As Americans, we are all too familiar with the kamikazes of World War Two – seen as an expression of the samurai virtue – as well as the present-day suicide bombers attempting to derail the democratic process in the Middle East. For the majority of Western culture, however, suicide is a disdainful selfish act, not to mention a sin. Nonetheless, it is an individual act dependent on either the acceptance or rejection of such morals concerning it.

The legal side of the argument is more broadly problematic. Morals aside, does an individual have the right to die by his or her own hand with the help of another? After all, one party is asking another to help murder them in order to end their suffering. It is analogous to homicidal suicide – or would it be suicidal homicide? – with legal consequences for the assisting party. However, sometimes the right, i.e. lawful, thing to do is not always the moral thing to do, and vice versa. Just ask Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who saw it as immoral to stand by and do nothing for terminally ill patients in spite of the legal ramifications. For Kevorkian and others like him, their oath to do no harm means helping end pain and suffering when no other options exist.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the founding principle of this nation. The question is, when life is diminished terminally and irreversibly, does liberty allow for the pursuit of dignified death? How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life and, as in life, each individual should be allowed to deal with it in their own way. It simply depends on one’s own beliefs and convictions, and only in terms of the situation at hand. It is idealistic to hope that no one ever has to make such a choice, but likewise, there is the hope that the choice could be yours to make rather than a lobbyist or bureaucrat. With the Supreme Court’s latest 6-3 ruling in support of Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act,” that hope still remains. 

©2006 Steve Sagarra

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