miscellaneous commentary

The Right to Die with Dignity

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A couple weeks ago I rented “You Don’t Know Jack”, a movie that aired on HBO about Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino, the film was so good it should have been released theatrically. It focuses on Kevorkian’s late career as a leading, lonely advocate for physician-assisted suicide.

The film largely portrays Kevorkian in a positive light, though he is a flawed man. Driven by his zeal to promote his cause, he counsels some patients who were later determined to not be terminally ill to proceed with suicide. But that may only underscore his philosophy that it is the right of each person to determine how they should go and when.

I support Kevorkian’s philosophy that we all have the right to determine our own manner of death. I think a lot of people do too, at least in terms of life support: when the mind checks out, what’s the point of keeping the body alive? But “YDKJ” raises a valid point: while it is legal to remove someone from life support, which causes the body to slowly die via starvation and dehydration, it is illegal in all but three states to bring about death in a quick and painless manner.

Why should people have to wait until they are unconscious from whatever ails them, if they are in pain and there is no hope of recovery? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to bring about an end to their suffering in a peaceful, dignified manner of their own choosing?

The argument used most often against physician-assisted suicide (or euthanasia, which is slightly different) is that it is playing God with our lives and bodies. Well yes, it is. So what? In an article discussing “YDKJ” and his own thoughts on suicide, Roger Ebert offers this rebuttal:

“When he was asked if he wasn’t playing God, Dr. Jack replied with perfect logic: “Every doctor plays God.” This is the simple truth. When doctor cut us open, stitch and mend, medicate us, drug us, radiate us and prolong our lives, they are playing God. In a more direct sense, if we choose to abuse tobacco, drugs, alcohol and wise nutrition, we are playing God. We have decided we should not live the lifespan our bodies were programmed for. And if we do not believe in God, we can hardly welcome someone else, or the law, playing God on our behalf.”

Dudley Clendinen, an author and former writer for the New York Times, was recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Earlier this month he wrote a touching essay about his choice to die before his time comes, and how he addressed that decision with his children. I highly recommend reading it in its entirely. Here is a choice quote:

“We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.”

This article made me think of “Joe Versus the Volcano”, a 1990 film in which Tom Hanks is told he has only so many months to live, and how he chooses to embrace not only his remaining days but also his death.

And “The Sea Inside”, the 2004 Spanish film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film, in which Javier Barden, a quadriplegic who fought the Spanish court system for 29 years for his right to end his own life. I was moved by the detail and moral considerations that went into his suicide plans.

And I remind myself of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes film festival. The film tells the story of a man dying of terminal illness (liver failure), who is visited by the spirits of loved ones in the days leading to his own death. It is interesting to see how other cultures view death in different ways, and sometimes they are similar — how Uncle Boonmee walked into the cave and awaited his fate, much like how Dudley Clendinen has accepted his own “quiet and calm” way.

While I’ve never given any thought to suicide and I’m currently in good health (great health, in fact), I support the belief that, if I’m suddenly faced with a short-term expiration date, then I’m going to exercise my right to die in a manner of my own choosing. Even if that means traveling to Oregon, Washington or Montana, the three states that currently allow physician-assisted suicide (under varying regulations). But don’t worry, I’m going to get as much out of life as I can before that happens.


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  1. […] second follow-up on a previous post about dying with dignity is this thoughtful article about the reluctance of doctors to embrace […]

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