Some Pleasant Way to Go?
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No Final Solution?

For whatever reason, we developed the means to prolong life, and now we are forced to use it.  We do not have the right to die.

- Barbara Huttmann
A Crime of Compassion

Terri Schiavo shortly after her attack and 15 years later, shortly before her death by starvation

Euthanasia is one of the most controversial and fear-evoking topics of conversation, and while uniform agreement does not seem to be on the horizon, it remains a very important topic.  Are "advance directives" the answer?  Should life be prolonged as long as possible, regardless of the desires of the patient, his friends, and his family?  Should anyone who wishes it be able to die?

Gradually, society is leaning towards advance directives, which are a way for someone to state his wishes about resuscitation before he becomes unexpectedly unable.  These are an elegant solution to a difficult problem, but they are not the ultimate solution.  There are varying levels of illness, and some illnesses that appear to be chronic can be cured, albeit rarely.  And what if the patient changes his mind?  What if the illness is a mind-altering one, so one’s previous wishes may no longer be applicable?  What if the patient wishes for death, but is fearful of being thought to have committed suicide?  What if the patient has not filled out an advance directive?  Even if advance directives were mandatory, exceptions are unavoidable.

One partial solution to avoid ambiguous situations may be to require every citizen to name someone who could assess what he would wish, should he become unexpectedly incapacitated without stating his wishes, or to decree that those wishes, though formerly stated, do not apply to his current circumstance.  After all, this is done with pets all the time, is it not?  It is widely accepted that if a pet is "suffering," the socially acceptable thing to do is to "put it down."  In fact, it is frowned upon to not put a pet down if it is in pain.  Yet for a human, the reaction is entirely different.  What separates a terminally ill and delirious human from a dog?  Neither can tell you his wishes.  Further, some dogs are more loved by their owners than some humans are by their friends and family.

Even advance directives and the theoretical ability to "put someone down" wouldn't be the final solution.  Another obstacle is if the person in question is afflicted with severe depression.  Suicide is a common cause of death, and is usually unpleasant for all involved.  Would it not be nice if there were a pleasant, legal way to die?  Certainly the family would prefer it if "chronic depression," rather than suicide, could be given as a cause of death!  But how can a doctor assess if someone is chronically depressed?  One way would be to ask the patient each week for one year, then average the response.  If the person has remained suicidal virtually all year, and his depression does not seem curable, then the patient could be offered a painless, pleasant way out, surrounded by any family or friends he might have.  If none are available, pleasant music, the smell of flowers, and perhaps a nature movie could be substituted.

But such solutions would have to be agreed upon by a majority before they could come to pass.   On a topic of such controversy and fear, only the barest minimum of laws would ever be enacted.  It is very unlikely that a perfect final solution will ever be found, so while small advances and declines will be a constant, as long as it is human nature to fear death, euthanasia, both active and passive, will remain prominent social issues.

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This page last updated on: Sunday, 18 January 2004

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