Liberty, Justice, and Assisted Suicide

Jul 18 2009 Published by under Featured News

“Justice is the convergence of Law, Truth and Good,” well, or so I’ve believed for a while now. This is hardly a complete definition – but I would like to think it serves as reasonable summary of the thought that these virtues have flowered in a progression toward a common goal over time.

For longer than recorded history undoubtedly there have been laws. The earliest might have been something like, “Don’t leave meat out in the cave, don’t draw pictures defiling ‘god,’ etc.. In the time of recorded history, we have seen societies a few societies reflect some very advanced thinking of fair treatment of all citizens, such as ancient Athens exemplify nearly pure democracy, granting everyone reasonably equal standing before the law, but more commonly ancient societies were brutal, with harsh punishments for the merest of crimes.

We have also seen societies like Imperial Rome, or even the Papacy, which twisted the law to allow for abuse, usurpation of rights, and the enslavement of entire nations. Even ancient religious/biblical laws, such as those in Leviticus, called for the stoning of those who wear clothing of two fabrics, or sew fields with two crops.

Over time, it seems to me, laws have usually become fairer, more respectful of complex rights. They recognized rights to dissent such as rights of free speech, and also recognized the presumption of innocence, due process protections and the need for fair legal representation. These obviously were outgrowths of realizations that older laws were unjust when they failed to protect the innocent.

So, mankind has improved things to achieve fair treatment under the law and to and provide the defendant and equal chance as the state has for the truth to come out. In essence, the truth, the betterment of mankind’s treatment by government, has been the root of what we desired in law. We have sought to punish only the wicked, restrain the wrong, and prevent harm to the innocent.

We have also sought to temper the law, to have it treat even the guilty with a measure of compassion. Where past punishments provided for death or the severing of a limb or keel-hauling or quartering, we have decided some crimes are far lower in harm than the punishments which we meted out, and we drew back from that practice. We sought to marry compassion to truth, and to make law from it. I am mindful of this as I watch “Victim’s Rights advocates decry Sonya Sotomayor as wrong for daring to actually have some regard for the fairness of the law, the proportion of the punishment to the crime, when deciding that punishment.

So, if compassion is a reflection of what we feel is fair, and good is doing the least necessary harm meaning ensuring we do not improperly harm the innocent as we protect society from the guilty, it seems we have thus sought over time to marry both fairness and goodness to the law – this convergence of two paths, one of truth, the other of the ability of the people to set forth codes of conduct -it is this convergence, it seems to me, which is what justice is.

Last Friday my neighbor down the street apparently took his own life. He was dying of cancer – he was 59. We don’t know for certain what happened exactly. I am speculating a bit, but the police said there was no threat to the public – which usually means either suicide or domestic dispute. His wife was in her late 50’s, and there doesn’t seem to be any history of difficulty between them – so, it is at least conceivable that he preferred death to the ravages of palliative chemotherapy.

As a child, I watched my grandfather and grandmother both waste away from cancer. They died four days apart; my grandmother in the end could only acknowledge her wants and needs by tapping her foot – once for yes, twice for no. She was an extraordinarily warm, kind, compassionate and cheerful person, watching her degrade into quadriplegia and then mute agony was heartbreakingly difficult as 9 year old. For my grandfather, who was himself dying of Hodgkin’s disease, I imagine it was 10 times worse.

I also recently watched my father-in-law waste away and die to kidney cancer – he fought like hell, lost 110 of his 220 pounds. He was determined to live, but succumbed in the end. His wife (my mother in law), cared for him up until the last few weeks in her house, cleaning up after him, bathing him, fetching him from wandering aimlessly down the street. When my children went to see him three months after having last seen him (and a few weeks before his death) they walked right by him as he sat in his wheel-chair. They didn’t even recognize him.

It was excruciating for my wife and my mother-in-law. In the end, the woman who had been married to him for 50 years felt that, “It was harder to have him here than to have him gone.” She was relieved I’d guess, though she undoubtedly felt guilty for feeling it.

I say all this because, when someone has family and friends they want to live for, as the father of two of my children’s closest friends had (Wayne died three years ago, when his kids were 11 and 7) – I think they should do everything they can, fight with every breath, to be there as long as they can – it is more than just about them at that point. However, when they have fought long enough, when the pain is too much, when the future is too bleak, I believe it is their right, and their right alone to decide when that time has come. Ready access to firearms makes death an easy companion, usually for all the worst reasons in the most horrid and sudden of ways. Yet, who are we to decide for those whom we have little idea the agony they suffer, that they are wrong to act to avoid the last few painful, empty, harrowing weeks?

In the United States, for example, only one state, Oregon, has assisted suicide laws – so the actions of my neighbor, and certainly of anyone who helped, will be deemed illegal. Even in England, a somewhat more liberal country regarding some of the social structures we argue about here – there is no allowance for these kinds of circumstances..and, as this story helps illustrate, it leads to people leaving the country to end their pain.

“The controversy over the ethical and legal issues surrounding assisted suicide for the terminally ill was thrown into stark relief on Tuesday with the announcement that one of Britain’s most distinguished orchestra conductors, Sir Edward Downes, had flown to Switzerland last week with his wife and joined her in drinking a lethal cocktail of barbiturates provided by an assisted-suicide clinic.”

This was a distinguished member of the nobility who sought to end his life in Switzerland rather than disobey British law. He was 84, his children were sad, but supportive of his choice to die with the woman he had spent 50 years with as a life partner. His son was quoted saying:

“Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.” He added, “It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it.”

If the law says such actions are wrong, why? Is there truly a need to require someone to keep living in agony? Is there truly a need to require the families of those who are terminal to watch them fall into oblivion of Alzheimer’s final days, of cancer’s final weeks of morphine induced stupors, of chemotherapy’s cadaverous preludes?

To me, the law to me seems to be written for the ignorant. Perhaps it was originally motivated by religiosity rather than compassion, but it certainly seems unaware of the heartbreaking impacts of requiring someone to be present, when the agony to them and their loved ones required for presence is worse than loneliness of no longer having them around.

If someone is taking 50 units of morphine per half hour (as my father in law was), if they have no control over bodily function as my grandmother lacked, what religion would say ending this pain is wrong? Is it compassionate to force them to live on? Perhaps the time has come for us to stop forcing people like my neighbor (assuming this is the case) to break the law to find justice and peace. Is it fair or right or truthful or good to require their presence in a life which is more painful to us to witness and to them to live, than to allow it to peacefully end?

It is lawful, I suppose, but is it Just?

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