right to die
Daughter supporting her terminally ill mother lying on hospital bed / Photo by motortion (Depositphotos)

Can We Balance the Right to Die with Valuing the Gift of Life?

Can We Balance the Right to Die with Valuing the Gift of Life?

Commentary By Walter Hesford

I know someone who chose to end their own life. Perhaps you know someone who also did so.

I don’t want to say that this person “committed suicide” as this sounds like a crime was committed, though until fairly recently, suicide was considered a crime.

Perhaps it is criminal, or at least unfortunate, that this person died alone, not wanting to implicate anyone in their death lest anyone be held liable by the government.

Had this person lived in Canada, this lonely death could have been prevented through this country’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) program.

When first enacted in 2016, MAID was initially quite like the Death with Dignity Act of Washington (among other states — but not Idaho). It gave those who were close to death the right to have a lethal injection that would end their life and their suffering.

However, in 2020 the requirement that people needed to be close to death to receive medical assistance to end their life was eliminated in Canada. This opened the door to practices that David Brooks — in his June 2023 The Atlantic article, “The Canadian Way of Death” — finds problematic.

One can read on-line excerpts from Brooks’ article under the title “The Outer Limits of Liberalism.” This title points to Brooks’ view that granting the right to die with medical assistance to almost any suffering citizen who wants it is an expression of a liberalism that values a person’s autonomy above all else — if individuals have the right to control their own life, why shouldn’t they have the right to control their death?

Brooks argues that we should replace this individualistic, autonomy-based liberalism with a gift-based liberalism that starts with the following core conviction: “I am a receiver of gifts. I am part of a long procession of humanity. I have received many gifts from those who came before me, including the gift of life itself. The essential activity of life is not the pursuit of individual happiness. The essential activity is to realize the gifts I’ve been given by my ancestors, and to pass them along, suitably improved, to those who will come after.”

While Brooks does not evoke a specific religious tradition, his argument strikes me as essentially religious. We are tied to our past, our future and to each other. We have the responsibility to care for our traditions, our communities, and we should be thankful for this responsibility, this way to express and experience love.

Right-to-die advocates cited in Katie Engelhart’s 2021 book, “The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die,” tend to see traditional religion as a hindrance to the full realization of what they see as a basic human right. In Belgium, one the European countries in which this right has for several years been fully realized, it is thought that “secular humanism and freethinking had triumphed over the tyrannical dictates of religious dogma … Through euthanasia, Belgian society had invented a new, compassionate morality that was committed to the reduction of human suffering.”

Some assume that religious folk value human suffering. This is the assumption of a U.S. right-to-die activist who had been born into a German Catholic family, but had shed his faith. According to Engelhart: “Now that he had lost his God, there was no redemption to be found in anguish, no transcendence in pain.”

I am not sure those of us committed to a religious tradition find redemption in anguish or transcendence in pain. I am sure that we are called to care for those who are suffering, and that we often do not heed this call.

Near his conclusion, Brooks writes that if “autonomy-based liberals believe that society works best when it opens up individual options, gifts-based liberals believe that society works best when it creates ecologies of care that help people address difficulties all along the path of life.”

The U.S. has fallen woefully short of providing an ecology of care for those most in need. And I have fallen short of creating an ecology of care for my loved ones, including the one who took their own life. What more might have I done to support this person, to assure this person that their life was a gift of great value?

I suspect many who read FāVS News struggle as I do with balancing peoples’ right to end what they experience as a life of suffering with the obligation of our community to value the gift of everyone’s life.

I would appreciate hearing the views of others on this complex issue.

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Tracy Simmons

I think right to die is compassion.

Lynn Kaylor

You’d think that one’s readiness to die would be an intensely individual matter that we hold as sacred as the course of life itself. Dying is part of living. But given the status quo, it isn’t. I faced this issue with my husband in his final months of intense pain and surgeries that left him in worse condition than before he received them. In fact, I was called to the recovery room to help stabilize him because he woke up from his last surgery literally screaming with pain. Then he stopped eating. He grew weaker and weaker. I waited up entire nights to concole him after he’d wake up in panic from nightmares, for he was not a man of dreams. He first stated that he didn’t “want to live anymore” and didn’t “want to hurt anymore,” all laced with apologies. Each time he said this, we’d have to get an interview from a psychiatrist. After the third time, even the doctors were ready to give up on him. Releasing my husband to palliative care was the most heart-wrenching decision I ever had to face. I kissed him his last “I love you” as the monitor dropped. It rose feebly just then, then continued its decline to zero. A crowd gathered around the hospital room to watch then, knowing that the decisions had already been made. We too often think of death as a cruel thing. But life in intense suffering is even crueler. Why do doctors let this go on for so long? I think they knew he wouldn’t last. They acted in such a matter as to make sure they’re legally covered. I don’t think it had anything to do with my husband’s interests. Yes. Life is a gift. So is the time of death.

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