Do We Have A Right To Die?

By Shane E. Bryan
April 1998


A young man lies in a hospital bed.  The painkillers he receives every four hours only partially mute the pain that wracks his body.  He is hooked up to life support systems.  This man is in the advanced stages of lung cancer.  Outside of a miracle, there is no hope for his recovery.  Modern medicine can do nothing but prolong his life and try to ease his pain.

Should this man be allowed to die?  If he wishes, should he be disconnected from life support systems to hasten his death?  Should doctors be allowed to prescribe drugs which will actually terminate his life?  These are tough questions that frequently arise in today's modern society as aging baby boomers wrestle with their own mortality.  Medical technology has reached the point where many terminally ill patients can be kept alive almost indefinitely.  Many people would rather just be allowed to die in peace and with dignity.

There are many divided opinions on the right to die.  Some feel that no one has the right to decide when they should die, while others feel that they should have the right to decide to humanely end their suffering.  Currently, other than in Oregon, the laws of this country prohibit helping to end one's life.  There are several groups working to change these laws with some success.  In most cases brought to trial, juries have refused to convict those involved in mercy killings or assisted suicide.

I do feel that people should have the right to die a natural death if they wish.  If a pet were to develop a serious injury or illness, what would we do with it?  Even though we loved that pet, we would probably take it to the vet and have it humanely put to sleep.  Common sense tells us to put the animal out of its misery.  But when it comes to humans, we try to prolong that misery for as long as possible.  Why do we insist on prolonging death when there is little or no hope fro a return to a quality life?

I see two main reasons behind this thinking:  a fear of death and religious dogma.  Most modern Americans have come to fear death; they're afraid of what might come after.  Death used to be respected as a natural part of the life cycle by most of the world.  Once we routinely died in our own homes among our loved ones.  Today we are much further removed from thr dying process with nearly 80 percent of deaths occurring in hospitals, nursing homes, or other institutions.  Religion also plays a big part in modern thinking.  One thread in this thinking is that "unto everyone is appointed a time to die."  But to most people this implies extending life by every means possible to man.  This is often cruel and unusual punishment under the guise of religion.

In the ancient world the attitude toward human life was different from ours.  Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle all rejected suicide as a cowardly way of avoiding life's hardships and one's duties to self and state.  However, in cases of incurable disease accompanied by great pain, they felt that a person has a right to choose an earlier death.  Euthanasia, taken from the Greek for "good death", was often preferable to a miserable lingering death.

The early Christian Church took a very different attitude.  They viewed life as a trust from God, and only God has the right to take it.  Suffering, no matter how horrible, was viewed as a burden imposed by God, which men and women must bear until the "natural" end.  Advances in medicine keep pushing this end further and further away.  Is this still a natural end or is it a manmade end?  I think that if a person is disconnected from life support and allowed to die naturally, that this would in fact not conflict with Christian views.  In 1958, Pope Pius XII concurred, saying that we may "allow the patient who is virtually already dead to pass away in peace."

In the nineteenth century, utilitarianism took a different view from the early Christian view that had prevailed in Western thought.  One utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, felt that the purpose of morality was to promote the greatest possible happiness for creatures on Earth.  Euthanasia was considered morally right because it would decrease the amount of misery in the world.  John Stuart Mill, felt that the individual is sovereign over his own body and mind.  Therefore, if one wants to die quickly rather than linger in pain, that is strictly a personal affair, and the government has no business intruding.  Bentham himself requested euthanasia in his last moments.

Many of the European countries allow for some form of euthanasia.  Euthanasia is widely accepted in Holland; but it is still illegal and every doctor who practices it is liable to prosecution.  However, such prosecutions are not pursued provided that certain established guidelines are followed.  Seven conditions were established: the killing must be done by a physician; a second physician must concur; death must be requested by the patient while competent; the request must be free of doubt, well documented, and repeated; the request must not have been coerced; the patient's condition must be intolerable; and there must be no way to improve the patient's lot.  The law then accepts that the doctor acted under a conflict of duties in which he submitted to force majeure, the merciful moral compulsion to relieve the patient of unbearable suffering.

There have been some questions of abuse in Holland.  Every system is subject to some abuse and Holland is no exception.  With the laws in place, flagrant cases of abuse have been prosecuted.  Many of the questionable cases in Holland have been the result of giving morphine to patients in great pain in the last days of life.  The painkiller eased their suffering but also hastened their death.  This is also a common practice in this country, but Dutch doctors are more candid about its purpose.  In considering other questionable cases where euthanasia has been performed on comotose patients, you have to realize that in Holland most doctors are longtime family doctors who know their patients and their wishes well.

In the United States, one highly publicized case involves a Michigan pathologist, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  He constructed a device that would enable patients to commit suicide by pressing a button.  Since 1990, he has assisted in the suicide of 100 terminally ill patients.  He has had criminal charges brought against him several times but has never been convicted.  Michigan passed a law against assisted suicide specifically aimed at stopping him, but still they couldn't get a conviction.  In response to the question of what motivates him, Kevorkian has this to say:  "My desire always is to aid the suffering human being as I would any suffering entity.  When I wince at their suffering, I must do something.  Even if I didn't wince, as a physician I must do something.  It is never nice to see a human life ended.  But when the agony ends, it ameliorates what I feel."  While Kevorkian has many opponents, it is also obvious that many people support what he is doing to ease the suffering of the terminally ill.

Even people who sometimes do recover as a result of extraordinary treatment wish that they would have been allowed to just die.  One case in point is Dax Cowart.  He was badly burned in a propane explosion.  He suffered through 14 months of excruciating pain in a burn unit.  The whole time he begged to die but his wishes were denied.  Dax survived but he lost both hands, his eyes, and his sense of touch.  Although he has come to believe that life is worth living, he still looks back and wishes they would have let him die.  He should have been able to decide his own fate.  "I was completely astonished that, in this country, I could be forced to undergo treatment," says Dax.  "True freedom," he argues, "is not just freedom to make the right choices but also freedom to make the wrong choices."  Today Dax Cowart is a lawyer fighting for the rights of others to die.  Dax believes, "that there is no authority, no constitution, no law that can ever legitimately allow one human being to invade another human being's body without the person's consent."

Since physicians first took the Oath of Hippocrates, doctors have regarded the killing of patients, even on request, a violation of their profession.  The Hippocratic Oath says nothing at all about preserving life.  It says that "so far as power and discernment shall be mine, I will carry out regimen for the benefit of the sick and will keep them from harm and wrong."  The case for euthanasia depends upon how we understand "benefit of the sick" and "harm" and "wrong".  If we regard dehumanized and merely biological life as sometimes real harm and the very opposite of benefit, to refuse to welcome or even introduce death would be quite wrong morally.

One of the biggest opponents to euthanasia today is the Christian religion.  They have become so mired in their beliefs that what is right is whatever act obeys the rules even though the foreseeable result will be inhumane.  To them, the highest good is not human happiness and well-being, but obedience to a rule, no matter how misguided it may be.

Most Christians feel that death is evil because it is a result of sin.  They feel that suffering can be an authentic means of spiritual growth.  That is, they feel their God allows suffering and death in order to achieve a renewed, purified, and enriched life.  What kind of thinking is this?  We're talking about human lives here not iron ore!

I personally support the right to die a dignified death.  It is also a personal issue.  When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer he asked not to be hooked up to life support.  When the time came, he wanted nothing done but to have his pain eased.  When he was finally admitted to the hospital, his wishes were granted and he died a fairly quick and painless death.  Had his wishes not been granted, someone from the family probably would have gone in and started pulling plugs anyway.  He knew it was his time to go and this was the way he wanted it.

Recently, I had this issue brought to the forefront of my attention again.  While home for the holidays, I learned that my father had an inoperable brain tumor.  So far it is in an early enough stage that it hasn't affected him much.  I dread the day that this wonderful, hard-working man whom I love dearly and look up to will someday be laid low by something growing in his brain.  I have read stories of the pain and suffering endured by other families who have had to make a choice about a terminally ill loved one.  I've cried over some of them.  As hard as it might be, I realize its a choice I may also have to make someday.  I don't think I could bear to see him suffering and wasting away on life support.  I would rather see him pass peacefully on and remember him as he was; a wonderful dad.

I do feel that human life is sacred, but where is the sacredness in a frail body wracked with pain?  There is nothing sacred about suffering.  Let us make a dignified death legal for everyone and ease the suffering of a great many terminally ill people and their families.  We place human beings above animals, but we will put a suffering animal out of its misery.  Can we justify any less for a human?

NOTE:  This paper was written three years ago.  Since then a few things have changed.  Holland has passed laws legalizing assisted suicide; following most of the guidelines already outlined above.  Also, I do believe the state of Michigan did finally find a jury to convict Dr. Jack Kevorkian under their assisted suicide laws.  I am unsure what his current status is.  My grandmother also passed on a little over a year ago.  She too chose to die at home with no attempt made to keep here alive.  I did get to spend some time with her in her last few months.  While I'm sad to see her go, seeing her like that was also pretty heartbreaking.  Bless her.