11.28.2005

Right to Life

An essay I recently submitted for a scholarship:

Life. Wonderful, unpredictable, priceless. Yet what if a life has become little more than the difficult passing of air in and out of lungs, with no hope for recovery, for a future, or for playing with grandchildren in the yard? What then? Call it what you will, but I believe that a human being has every right to decide that his or her life is no longer worth living, and then to make every attempt to end it. Yet simply because each and every one of us has the right to make himself blissfully dead, does not mean that those who continue living are compelled to assist their efforts, or even to stand idly by. Where is it written that we must respect the wishes of those who believe their time has come? The problem with the right to die movement, then, is not with the wishes of the patient but with the presumed complicity of caregivers and loved ones.

In Jonathan Moreno’s Arguing Euthanasia, the well-reasoned arguments of several reputable American doctors and experts provide the reader with arguments for, but mostly against, the right of an individual to take his own life. The majority finds recent doctor-assisted suicides abhorrent, but the debate is rendered most elegantly by University of Chicago’s Dr. Leon Kass, who is concerned about the growing societal push for a right to die. What originally stemmed from our inalienable right to happiness in the landmark Oregon decision of November 1994, which first legalized assisted suicide, has become something more pervasive, even insidious. “From my right to die will follow your duty to assist me in dying,” the received wisdom goes, and Kass is rightly appalled.

Indeed, the progression is antithetical to humanity as we know it, which is based on the survival instinct, not only for ourselves but also for others. Speaking as both a doctor a human being, Kass acknowledges “the public duty to protect life against those who would threaten it... [and] a duty to prolong life whenever possible, regardless of the conditions of that life or the wishes of its bearer.” Every human being with a conscience can understand and appreciate such duties.

I believe that this life is all we are granted, that with my last breath I will experience my last moment of consciousness. Then nothing, darkness, the end. Thus, even if my mother, wife, or child begged me to pull the plug on their flickering humanity, I would hesitate to oblige. Many may disagree with my decision, but considering the vast chasm between here and there, between life and death, there must be room for hope. Speaking from experience, convicted murderer Doris Ann Foster said, “death row is a state of mind.” If Foster is right, perhaps the minds of those who have condemned themselves to the gallows can still be swayed. Indeed, a gesture of hope from the living might be the spark that re-ignites the flame of life in the heart, and mind, of the dying.

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