"Live, live, live!"
-Auntie Mame, Mame
Throughout the centuries, there has been increasing debate regarding suicide and the acceptable reasons for committing such an act. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and David Humes are just a sample of the many philosophers and theologians that have commented on this delicate subject ñ each with slightly differing views. In the twenty-first century, however, the topic of suicide becomes more complex because of the issues arising from this hotly debated subject.
For this discussion, we will focus on assisted suicide as it relates to the development of acceptable standards that would be uncompromising to the beliefs and ideals of differing social groups. It is in this manner that we will attempt to understand some of the increasingly difficult dilemmas presented. Do terminally ill patients have the right to choose death with the assistance of others? Do religious and political leaders have the right to intervene with a patientís decision to die with the assistance of others? These two questions are some of the many about which this increasingly complex debate thrives. Society is often asked to answer each question objectively, and in some cases without personal opinion ñ leaving many of these questions unanswered.
So that we may better understand the standard by which an individual is granted the right to choose whether he should or could be assisted in his suicide (shortening an otherwise dreadful or compromising death), we will examine some of the ideals set forth by the above mentioned "fathers of modern thought".
In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle concludes, "no one can suffer injustice voluntarily, because no one can wish to be harmed." Aristotle, who condemns the act of suicide, an ideal that is shared by his teacher Plato, attempts to support himself by stating that although suicide is not necessarily an injustice against oneself in the strict sense, it is an injustice to the "political community whose existence is essential to oneís own well-being."(M.M.Uhlmann, Last Rights?) It is this ideal of Aristotleís that helps to support the argument of the "slippery slope" effect. But with each opposing argument, there are other arguments that pose challenges to this ideal as proponents and opponents of assisted-suicide attempt to keep this dispute in its proper perspective.
By living in a society that is highly dependent on information provided by colleagues, professors and government, we have become vulnerable to the beliefs and ideals that we are most familiar with. It is these ideals, therefore, that would logically help to create the basis by which we set the standard for creating legislation regarding assisted-suicide. But in a country that is built on individual beliefs, ideals and religions ñ which standards are acceptable to develop such legislation, and how do these "accepted" standards compromise the beliefs and ideals of other social groups?
As we study some of the philosophical and religious ideals that have been passed on to us, we will discover the newly created questions that may be presented to us, as we allow ourselves to rebel against our personal beliefs and opinions. It is from this journey against the grain that we may also discover our own struggles in answering these questions as they relate to ourselves.
In a matter of seconds or minutes, it is easy for us to present a solution to this long-debated issue. But by subjecting ourselves to thoughts and ideals that have not been aggressively pondered and questioned, we subject ourselves to having the fate of our death decided by others that may not necessarily share our beliefs or concerns. It may then be to our advantage to create a living will ñ a document that states what our preferences are should we have the misfortune of becoming incapable of making rational decisions that determine how we want to live out the remaining portion of our lives.
By creating a living will, we are not only forced to cope with the prospects of a terminal illness, and inevitably death, but we also relieve our family members and friends from having to make decisions that they may otherwise find too emotionally strenuous to make without such will from the patient.
Beyond the effects that a living will would have on family members and friends, however, is one more very important prospect. If more people choose to create a living will, then as a society, or a "political community", we may have a clearer picture as to the direction that our legal system should pursue regarding this issue, as our wishes regarding the end of our "end of life" care becomes more evident.
Also, by creating a living will, we may have a better idea as to whether an individual that chooses a hastened death rather than prolonging a compromising illness, is indeed rational when making this decision. But if an individual does create a living will and clearly states that their preferred treatment is death, then is it possible that in pondering about these grim prospects that they may temporarily make irrational choices, even though their person may otherwise be consistently logical and rational? Although it may be plausible to consider this idea as a basis for choosing death when creating a living will ñ there must also be credence (from a logical perspective) that a rational person could at some other moment, think about what they had set forth in their living will, and change it at any time.
It is implied by Aristotle that the decision to end oneís own life, however, is not necessarily irrational. If it would appear, therefore, that death can be decided upon rationally and with good intent, then why should there be so much argument regarding this issue? Isnít it possible that by a rational person creating a living will, they can allow the legal system to legalize assisted-suicide without compromising the beliefs of other people? The standards of one individual, for instance, may be safe guarded from the standards of another, without entering the realm of religion or morality. Thus, our legal system would simply be abiding by the willful and desired intent of the patient, rather than the socio-political beliefs of our community. As stated in Must We Suffer Our Way to Death?, and quoted from the United States Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. ñ That
To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving
Their just powers from the consent of the governed.
It is the role of the legal system, therefore, to treat everyone fairly and justly, and not necessarily on the basis of someone elseís creed or religion.
In the case of Gene Robbins, an elderly man who had suffered two strokes, the rationale was simple. Gene did not want to encounter a third stroke that would potentially paralyze him or cause him to become demented. After two unsuccessful suicide attempts, the first with a razor blade to his wrist and the second by mixing Clorox with ammonia while locking himself in his bathroom, Gene finally made his exit with the assistance of a friend he had met when gathering information from the National Hemlock Society.
Geneís reasons for seeking suicide may have been rational ñ no one wants to be in a vegetative state or in a state of dementia. Geneís two unsuccessful attempts to seek death, by slitting his wrist and turning his bathroom into a gas chamber, however, may indicate an incapability to deal with present situations rather than an avoidance of future probabilities. It could appear, because of the extremes that Gene pursued to seek death, that his, frame of mind was not rational, but rather, as stated in Platoís Laws to be a
species of "sloth and unmanly cowardice". Aristotle, a student of Plato, would have also thought of Geneís attempts at and eventually executed suicide as being cowardly. In fact, Aristotle says, "to seek death in order to escape from poverty, or the pangs of love, or from pain and sorrow, is not the action of a courageous man, but rather of a coward; for it is weakness to fly from troubles, and the suicide does not endure death because it is noble to do so, but to escape from evil."(M.M. Uhlmann, Last Rights?)
But Aristotle states that although it is not necessarily irrational to seek death, he does say that by committing the act of suicide, harm is brought to the "political community". It does seem possible that by an individual committing the act of suicide (with or without the assistance of others), that he could bring harm to his community. A well-respected member of society that hastens his own death through suicide, for instance, may unintentionally induce others to follow in his example. This act could then bring harm to the community. But is it not possible that there may be some benefits from such an action?
As a retired senior citizen, sixty years of age at the time of his death, Gene collected from Social Security and had some of his medical expenses covered through Medicare. Gene rarely ventured outside his home, because he had acquired some physical difficulties from his strokes. His wife had been deceased for over eighteen years and Gene had no other family members that he remained in contact with. What, therefore, could be the harm that Geneís assisted-suicide could present to the "political community?" Isnít it, in fact, possible that by committing the act of suicide, Gene could actually benefit the "political community?" Upon his death, for instance, Medicare would no longer need to pay medical costs or reimbursements. Social Security would have one less payment to make each month. These savings that are reaped by the government could then be appropriated to patients or individuals that would prefer to live out their remaining months or years. Certainly, these are two prime benefits that to society. But are these benefits outweighed by the negative repercussions that such a loss can have on our society?
David Humes, philosopher, writer and father of modern skepticism, may have considered some of these losses that could be attributed to such actions. It seems that he understood the perceived win-loss paradox associated with an individualís suicide.
On the other hand, it is not understood whether Aristotle recognized the benefits that may have been gained by the "political community" when an individual seeks suicidal death in situations other than combat. It is possible that Aristotle recognized the benefits, but thought that the negative impact on society overshadowed the perceived benefits.
The "slippery slope" effect that could occur in the "political community", for instance, could have long standing repercussions. How could we, for example, claim that one personís reasoning for suicide is acceptable, but the reasoning of another person is not? Where do we, or where can we draw the line between acceptable and not acceptable? How do we prevent abuses by family members, friends or physicians that may directly or indirectly benefit from a patientís death? In a society that can gain so much by an individualís death, it can become difficult, and in some situations impossible, to determine the motives of parties actively willing to assist a patient in hastening their death.
And although there may be a danger when we allow our legal system to decide whether it is acceptable or not for a patient to aggressively hasten their death, the danger of patients making these decisions without the courtsí knowledge could have more severe consequences. For instance, a patient who enlists the assistance of family or friends with their suicide could place the willing accomplices in the precarious position of defending themselves if the death of the patient was considered something other than suicide.
In a society that can gain so much by an individualís death, it can become difficult, and in some situations impossible to determine the motives of parties actively willing to assist a patient in hastening their death.
It is believed by Thomas Aquinas, devout Christian, theologian and philosopher, that an individual does not have the right to bring death upon himself. To do so would violate one of the Commandments of God ñ Thou shalt not kill. But can this commandment be interpreted to include the killing of oneself? "The Catholic church teaches that suicide is an offense against oneís neighbors and that it contributes to the breakdown of community and society as a whole" (CDF, 1982). Being that the Catholic church also states that we are to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, it would make perfect sense that the act of suicide can be included in this Commandment of God.
But do practicing Christians have the right to determine whether suicide may be an option for an individual that has no belief in God or Jesus Christ, or in any religion? Isnít it, in fact, possible that one religious groupís ideals may prevent the salvation of another group of people?
For Mark Kobayashi, a sixty-seven year old retired elementary school teacher, salvation did not come in the form of religion or morality. For Mark, salvation was death. After a planned two-day stay at an Oregon hospital bed for a catheter implant, Mark was instead hospitalized for six days. During his time at the hospital, Mark could not stop vomiting, and his lungs were filling with tumors, which had also spread to his spine, causing unyielding and intolerable pain. After battling cancer for several more years than doctors had expected, Mark decided that he did not want to continue suffering these compromising ordeals. Rather than prolonging the inevitable outcome, Mark decided that he would prefer to have his family by his side when he passed on.
Christians believe that our bodies belong to God, and that our bodies are actually loaned to us during our life. Therefore, our bodies, according to Christians, are not to do with as we please, but rather as God chooses for us. We, therefore, are to make every attempt to preserve our bodies until our time has naturally expired. Self-preservation for Mark, however, was the retention of mastery of his life ñ the choice to die with dignity and comfort, and with his family by his side.
As individuals living in the United States, we are given the basic right to determine what is best for us. We choose what to eat, who to marry, what we wear, what to study, and our career path, among other things. And although our decisions, in one way or another, have consequences ñ some of them good, and some of them bad, they remain our decisions. Should our decision regarding our death, therefore, be so different? Do our human rights end at this most critical point of our lives? In a society that thrives on making logical and rational decisions, it seems odd that we could be incapable of understanding the need for an individual to seek the assistance of another individual to hasten their death so that they may avoid pain or humiliation.
Religious or moral beliefs may prevent some of us from seeking the assistance of others to hasten our own death. But should we hold others accountable because of the standards that we choose to live by? With adversaries of assisted-suicide opposing the legalization of such acts, we are forcing our beliefs onto others who prefer peace and comfort at their time of death. As Christians, non-Christians, philosophers, teachers and laypersons, we all share one very key affiliation other than life and death itself. We are born with the "freedom of will", either by the Grace of God, or some other greater force. As such, it appears logical that we have some preconceived right to choose whether or not we aggressively seek death.
With over seventy-percent of all Americans destined to face the grim prospects of a painful or compromising death, it is possible that the acceptance of assisted-suicide will become more promising. For Medicare and Social Security ñ the bittersweet benefits may prove substantial. To Christian leaders, the potential acceptance will likely be compromising and disappointing. But for a terminally ill patient who has been suffering long enough, or would like to die with their dignity and their pride ñ the acceptance of assisted-suicide will be a moment worth dying for.
"Euthanasia, Voluntary" from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
"Assisted Suicide: Finding Common Ground." Lois Snyder, JD; and Authur L. Caplan, PhD. Annals of Internal Medicine. March 21, 2000. v.132, n.6
"Clinical problems with the Performance of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide in the Netherlands." Johanna H. Groenewood, Agnes van der Heide, Bregje D. Onwuteaka-Phillipsen, Dick L. Willems, Paul J. van der Maas, Gerrit can der Wal. The New England Journal of Medicine. February 24, 2000. v.342, n.8
"Legalized Physician-Assisted Suicide in Oregon ñ The Second Year." Amy D. Sullivan, Katrina Hedberg, David W. Fleming. The New England Journal of Medicine. February 24, 2000. v.342, n.8
"A Right to Choose Death? Moral Argument for the Permissabilty of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide." F. M. Kamm. Boston Review on the WEB. Summer, 1997.
"Beyond the Call of Duty: A Daughter Reflects on the Meaning of Her Motherís Suicide. Vivian Rothstein. Boston Review on the WEB. Summer, 1997.
"Right To Die Denied" Online Focus(PBS Newshour). June 26, 1997.
Uhlmann, M. (1998) . Last Rights? Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Weir, R. (1997) . Physician-Assisted Suicide. Indiana: Indiana University Press
Shavelson, L. (1995) A Chosen Death. New York: Simon & Schuster
Hamel, R., DuBose, E. (1996) Must We Suffer Our Way To Death? Texas: Southern Methodist University Press
Fernando A. Vega January 25, 2001
Writing Workshop II Professor Keefer
A Not So Distant Memory
I still remember the melodious songs of the yellow birds that would sit outside my bedroom window every morning as a child. Mother Natureís alarm clock has always been the sweetest reminder that the day was just beginning. My hair would curl in all sorts of crazy directions, sometimes tricking me into believing I was someone else since my hair was actually straight when combed.
I remember the coziness of being semi-conscious while I lay silently between the blue cotton sheets and the light quilted blanket that secured me to the bed like a papoose. Sometimes odors of sizzling bacon, or scrambling eggs or waffles being toasted would seep into my bedroom through the partially closed door, a pleasant reminder that the weekend has come.
My mother would announce from the kitchen that breakfast was served, calling my brother, my father and me one by one, making clear that the food was quickly getting cold. Often I would be pulled from my semi-conscious state as quickly as the baby yellow birds outside my window would swallow the worms brought to them by their mother.
A delicious hot breakfast on a beautiful Saturday spring morning was nothing to be taken lightly. The crispy taste of fried pork combined with buttered golden brown toast and freshly squeezed orange juice, as unhealthy as it sounds, was no less tantalizing than the adventures that I could look forward to throughout the day.
As noon approached, the neighborhood would begin to flood with other kids my age, many of whom I knew from school. The doorbell would be rung five or six times in a row, commanding my immediate response, resulting instead in my motherís repeated lectures about how they could avoid giving her a headache with the door bell.
My dog would bark loudly and perhaps appropriately at the screaming and chattering kids that were anxiously waiting at the door. Although this weekly ritual transpired for several years, Lassie always seemed sure that danger was lurking on the other side. Lassie was a smart dog for the most part, but some things he just didnít get.
And my mother warned should be put away when I was done using it, or a rope that my younger brother would sometimes string along the bottom of one of the doorways; a trap he would set as a practical joke. Sometimes I would trip because of my own two feet. Most of the time I would escape the perilous hazards that littered the floor as I continued hastily in the direction of the obnoxious screams and laughter. But there were times that my mother would have to fix the scrapes and bruises that came with being careless, or care free as my grandmother would put it.
As I would open the door to greet the kids from the neighborhood, the bright yellow sun would pierce my unsuspecting eyes, though they quickly adjusted to this change. It is at that very moment that my more experienced eyes open to hear the yellow birds singing outside my window those sweet melodious songs I love. But thereís no odor of bacon or eggs and there are no kids ringing the doorbell five or six times. My thinned hair does not curl in all sorts of crazy directions, and there are no obstacles to watch for. But these memories are still here with me, in a not so distant way.
My Cousin John and Me
Waking up every morning is nothing less than a delightful experience when I am visiting my cousin, John. John and I spent a great deal of time together when we were growing up in Tusco, Mississippi. Every chance we had, we would pack up an old black leather medical bag with fishhooks and worms and even sandwiches. The thought of mixing sandwiches and worms together in the same bag is a memory I could probably do without. As kids, though, we never gave it a second thought, and the fish never seemed to mind it.
Tusco was a magical place, and Johnís presence made it even more exciting. Hot and muggy days often ended in water fights with the hose, and mud wrestling -- two things that always resulted in lectures from my mother and aunt. And on days that were too cold to go fishing, we would usually play board games with the girl next door, and sometimes games that required no board or special pieces.
Since I moved away from Tusco, though, John made some noticeable changes. One thing, for instance, that I noticed when I first arrived at Johnís house was a wall in his bedroom painted to replicate the Southern Confederate Flag. This may be Mississippi, but I never remember John being so patriotic about being a southerner. At first I thought that this was a token symbol of the south ñ nothing more than a young girl pinning up pictures of teen idols. When I asked him about it though, he said that it was a rebellious stunt he did to illustrate the irony of my aunt and uncleís devout Christianity.
My cousin also had a picture of John F. Kennedy next to a poster of Marilyn Monroe on the same wall in his bedroom. I didnít dare ask what they were suppose to symbolize, although given their histories, one might suspect that this too was a part of the rebellious stunt that he rationalized to me earlier. More intriguing than these items, however, was a photograph that my cousin had on his dresser. In the photograph was my cousin shaking
hands with Georgia Congressman Robert Barr. It occurred to me that if my cousin were lashing out at his parents about their devout Christianity by painting the Southern Confederate Flag on his wall, then why would he have a photograph where he is shaking hands with a man who shares the same ideals with his parents.
Again, I shoes not to ask my cousin about this photograph, but as the saying goes ñ a picture can speak a lot about a person. This person that I grew up with, although similar in many ways, does not appear to be the same person that I grew up with. My cousin, as I remember him was carefree and easygoing. He understood his life to be a journey that is accepting of other truths and other values. The items that cluttered his room would tell a different story about a different person.
The rationalization that my cousin gave me regarding his wall and the picture of JFK and the poster of Marilyn Monroe is plausible, and those items alone would not have changed my conceptualization of my cousin John. The photograph, however, as simple, as innocent as it all appears, made me think. This is not a photograph illustrating a rebellious young man. This is not a simple analogy of ëChristianity is the root of all evilí. This is a symbol of separatist movements, where the bible preaches that all man is equal, except for blacks. It is a statement that says that Christianity is not a cult, but yet, all of those that do not conform to Christianity are sinners.
I still enjoy the moments that I spend with John, and for the most part when we are together it feels just like it did when we were kids. We still pack up the old black leather medical bag with fishhooks and worms ñ although we pack up the sandwiches in a separate bag. And we still find exciting things to do when itís too cold or hot outside. And although some of the items in Johnís bedroom are somewhat of a concern for me, the memories that we share are most prevalent.
Winter At Home
I always hated the winter months. The cold, wood floor beneath my bare feet sent chills through my body as I scurried onto my bed. Six months out of every year became a prison for me ñ always attempting to escape the frigid air that always pounded the ninety-year-old frame of the colonial style house I grew up in. I painted pictures in my head during these months, of the green grass, and forest-like foliage that made the outside of my home look like an English forest during the summer season.
It was only the anticipation of a warm summer that allowed me to weather these months. Even with the steam-powered radiators that covered almost every corner of the house, there were still too many of the original windows that allowed cool drafts to negate much of the welcomed warmth. The windows were tall and stately which gave my home a feeling of magnificence ñ especially as a small child. But these same windows made a long midnight walk from my bedroom to the bathroom seem like a journey through an ice cavern in the North Pole.
Surviving a chilly night in my house through the winter, under my snug and comfortable down blankets, however, was not nearly as challenging as when I had finished my morning showers. Standing beneath the seven-foot high silver nozzle, spewing hot, almost semi-boiled water from its tiny circular openings made the duration of this activity splendid and enjoyable. However, there was a price to pay for this luxury. As soon as the water was turned off and the shower curtain opened, I would immediately meet the drafts that would sneak in between the warm spouts of steam coming from the old iron radiators. Somehow, the cold air always knew where to find me.
I often wondered what my house thought of these silly antics of mine. The hopping and skipping I did as I attempted to avoid all of the awful things that come with winter. My house must have thought I was spoiled. After all, other than the tall naked oak trees that ordained the outside of my home, my house had no protection from the winter elements. "He complains about drafts?", my house must have asked. "How would he like to put up with 15 knot winds in 30 degree weather for six months of the year?" Admittedly, I never had to suffer to the extent that I am sure my house suffered. But if I was made of thick, hard wood, and wore a shingled tar hat would I really be that cold? Thankfully I will never know. I'm just glad that summer was always here.
There is a picture on my wall. Actually, it is an etching of an English hunting scene. There are seven men and one woman ñ all of them ornate with tan pants, tall black boots, a long red coat and a black cap that fits securely to their heads. Each person is sitting on a beautifully maintained, brown horse, and there are several beagles that appear to be frantically running around and between the shiny-coated thoroughbreds.
I keep the etching centered over a rectangular cherry wood, colonial style table ñ which adorns the entrance of my apartment in a stately, yet unobtrusive manner. The etching bears no hunting memories for me, nor does it symbolize any part of my life part of my life that may have had anything to do with this particular scene. Somehow, however, I have related myself to the etching as if it did mean something more than just a piece of art. There have been several times that I have lost myself in this image. Sometimes I stand several feet away from this picture, as I slowly impose myself upon it ñ replacing one of the men, with me.
Suddenly, the useless object, which Oscar Wilde claims all art to be, has meaning. This useless picture allows me to share experiences that I ordinarily would have never known. It allows me to understand who these men are. It allows me to know why this woman is there. It shows me how they are related, and how they relate to each other ñ and for a moment; how they relate to me.
One of these moments became a Sunday morning with cousins and siblings. We all joined each other at the back porch, a well-lighted are that overlooked a colorful and sweet smelling garden. On the porch, we had breakfast, indulging in freshly squeezed juices, buttered toast, eggs and fruit. After breakfast we walked together to the stalls, where we prepped the tall horses ñ all of them eager for their morning ride. All the while, the beagles were let loose from their kennels and the hunt for game began.
There have been other moments like this. Some are spent with at outing with colleagues from the university ñ Oxford or Cambridge perhaps. And other times, I was joined by
Political rivals and acquaintances ñ an effort to relate my ideals and political agendas.
For visitors that come to my apartment and see this etching hanging on my wall, it rarely means much more than a statement of décor. For those visitors, the picture is quite useless. But for those visitors who understand the symbolism that can be drawn from their own lives ñ just by making a closer observation, as I have done, there is a window of opportunity that is ready to be enjoyed.