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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Steve Guest Commits Suicide, The Age Asks..

Steve Guest, who inspired radio listeners two weeks ago with an impassioned plea for his right to die, has taken his own life. What are your experiences with people facing terminal illnesses? Should we have a right to die in Australia? My response, should it ever be published, was this: First off, let's be clear that this is not about Maria Korp. She has not expressed any wishes to die in such a situation. That needs to be clarified because Mr. Guest's suicide happens at the heels of Mrs. Korp's deathwatch. As for the right to die, theological objections to euthanasia wouldn't make sense to someone who is an atheist. From a Catholic perspective at least, it is based on an understanding that our lives are not completely ours but God's. To those who do believe in God, a "right to die" can also be rationalized, opposed to orthodoxy as they might be. This is not a theological forum so a theological discussion here would not be productive. Judging from the first few posts already here, theological arguments are not welcome anyway. What about non-theological grounds to oppose the right to die? My non-theological concern with such a right is that it is a slippery slope. Once you grant that people may have a right to die as they see fit, you slip down to questions of which people should exercise such a right. If you grant that this belongs to those in pain, you slip down to questions of what sort of pain justifies ending one's life. Mr. Guest was obviously in great physical pain, but you would also find people who are physically healthy but are in great emotional pain. To them, their pain can be worse than physical pain, regardless of their age or actual physical health. Many such people commit suicide, many of whom are young, and we can infer that they have claimed the right to die as they saw fit. Should any person in similar painful situations exercise the same right? The other slippery slope is the considerable room for abuse. In the Terri Schiavo case, the possibility of such an abuse can never be entirely dismissed. Terri had left nothing tangible to express her preferences to end her life if she were debilitated as she was. All they had was the testimony of her husband, who did not bring it up until years after her injury. That recollection also occured only after they won a malpractice lawsuit which he was set to inherit upon her death. His hearsay was corroborated by his own brother, but this was not brought up until a few more years after the husband's own recollection. This hearsay was contradicted by one of the husband's ex-girlfriends in an affidavit which was set aside by the judge for some reason. The same affidavit claims that Terri's husband stalked her (the ex-girlfriend). A court-appointed guardian ad litem subsequently recommended the removal of Terri's husband as legal guardian because there were grave conflicts of interest involved, including the inheritance due to him upon Terri's death and the fact that the husband was already living with another woman with whom he had children. Unfortunately his recommendation was set aside. This whole scenario goes on and would read like the plot for a crime/drama TV series episode, but everything I've mentioned so far is factual. FACTUAL. I'll grant that the judge did not see sufficient reason to doubt the husband's credibility and integrity, but you'll have to grant that there is reason to doubt them anyway. The judge's ruling did not involve a jury, after all, and there was no "beyond reasonable doubt" requirement in his rulings. The most damning aspect of Terri's case is that therapy was denied Terri in most of those years after her injury, despite recommendations from therapists. It's all very well for people to say that they have a right to die if they're terminally ill and in pain. But what if treatment is possible but was maliciously denied? People do get away with such things and it is conceivable that such perversities would extend to right to die cases. The proposal to enshrine the right to die in our laws is not as simple as people make them out to be. Rob the original up there (one of the first posters) claims that anyone who has lived through the horrors of a dying loved one would agree with his sentiments. I can disprove that because I went through that when my mother died of lung cancer. Yes, it was a painful way to die but my mother did not choose to end her life preemptively, nor did any of her children, including me. The weeks prior to her death, going through chemo-therapy, was painful for her and for us. I was there when she breathed her last. I was using a hand respirator to resuscitate her. I saw her tears as she left us. Strange but I did not see any lack of dignity in my mother's death. Perhaps when people refer to "dying with dignity" they refer both to dying without pain and dying without the shame one might feel from any debilitation. Perhaps half of the problem is that we expect life to come and go without pain. The other half is that we do not do enough to assure the debilitated that they are loved and need not feel shame for their pain and debilitation. After all, we all go through that on occasion, from being helpless, hapless infants, to being struck by some serious illness or injured in some accident. Debilitation is not a cause for shame but a cause for resolve to get better or to get by. There was a time when those who strove to get by regardless of pain or handicap were lauded for their courage. Clamoring for a legal right to die with dignity is also saying that handicaps, illness, disability and intense pain are causes for shame and indignity. Yes, it's a personal choice, but when have we ever stopped considering what people around us do and believe? Imagine exercising that right yourself and one day, your children find themselves in a similar situation. Will they not be affected by your choice? Will they not look back at your death with dignity and see shame and indignity in their own situation?

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