Physician-assisted suicide must be permitted
Imagine that you are 85 years old. You have been in good health, but suddenly
you suffer from a stroke that leaves you a prisoner inside your body. Aside
from being able to move your right index finger, you cannot move. You cannot
hear. You look straight ahead at the clock on the wall and, in a rough way,
chronicle your condition. Days pass. Weeks pass. As best you can figure,
you've been lying in your prison body for three months. But now you notice,
or you think you do, that you sleep more than before. After a while you
sleep, in a coma, and notice nothing.
Fortunately, there is a clever Emory doctor who comes to your rescue. He
has invented Infusion 1-1. He tells your family about his invention. He
also tells them that Infusion 1-1 has been approved by Emory's Human Investigations
Committee. He presents your family with a consent form. It explains that
if he uses the infusion on you, your hearing, speech and reason will be
restored and, strangely enough, so will your control over you right index
finger. Unfortunately, the restoration will last for only one hour and,
the consent form adds, the infusion can only be used once per person. Efforts
to use it a second time on subjects in his experiments have simply had no
effect. Aside from the benefits the infusion might bring, the consent form
explains the risks. There is a small chance the infusion will kill you.
Indeed, so far, although 18 infused patients have been restored, two have
died. After reading the consent form carefully and talking still more with
the clever Emory doctor, your family decides to let him use his magic restorative
Amazingly, it works as promised and you are restored. Understandably, what
follows is pretty emotional. You and the people around you both cry and
laugh. But after a while serious conversation begins when someone asks,
"What has it been like with you since...? You are anxious to tell them.
"Sometimes I am in pain. It comes and goes. But worse than pain is
the discomfort of just being there, wanting to move, but being unable to.
Sometimes I am too cold. Other times too hot. Sometimes I feel I can't breathe,
and other times I am choking. All the time I feel this sense of fatigue
and helplessness. I look forward to sleep, but it does not come easily.
After I do sleep, I awake and realize that the new day brings the same discomforts,
feelings of hot and cold, fatigue and sense of weakness, and the same frustrated
feelings of wanting to go to sleep. Time drags. I also feel restless and
despondent. More than that, I feel dismay. I know what is happening and
know also that no one can help me. I feel humiliated being there, in bed,
in such a helpless and ugly condition. I feel a sense of degradation. I
don't want to think of myself the way I am, and I certainly don't want people
to see me the way I am and then, later, to remember me that way. In short,
I've been miserable."
Time passes. There are only 15 minutes left. Someone asks: "What do
you want us to do?" You reply: "Had I been able to say so, I would
have asked you to end my life before I went into a coma. Back then I had
enough of pain, discomfort, fatigue, degradation and all the rest. Now you
tell me that I am in a coma.
If that's so, I ask you, `What's the point of keeping me alive?' Besides,
being in a coma is just as degrading as it was when I was conscious of what
was happening to me. If you don't want to end my life, help me do the job.
Arrange a Kervorkian-like machine quickly, and I will use my finger to finish
the job myself by pulling the `trigger.'" Those around you can't agree
on what to do. Time passes, and the effect that Infusion 1-1 has had on
you ends. You lapse back into a coma.
Should your family and your doctors have assisted you to end your life?
You bet! Not to help is to go counter to your strongest personal wishes
not to continue your suffering. It is also to go counter to an important
principle in our Western tradition that an individual should be allowed
to have his/her wishes satisfied when others are being hurt only marginally
or not at all. You are the one who is suffering and so you should be our
main concern in deciding what to do. If you wanted them to help you die
because your life is permanently miserable or pointless, then they ought
to have assisted you. Since your doctors and your family can't do anything
to help improve your health, the least they can do is to ease you out of
Nick Fotion is professor of philosophy and is a center scholar for the
Ethics Center. He was part of a panel discussion on physician-assisted suicide
sponsored by the Ethics Center in early November.
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