I can’t stop thinking about a piece written by my Ridenbaugh Press co-hort and friend Chris Carlson on these pages a few days back. The subject was voluntary end of life, Canada’s impending creation of a new law allowing it for some residents and a “profile” of who - in this country - his research appeared to show had ended their lives with this option.
At the outset, it should be recorded Chris and I are poles apart on the concept of assisted suicide. His well-thought out position opposing the practice is not surprising given his lifelong Catholic background and firsthand experience with a loved one’s suicide. Just as my support is not surprising given my lifelong beliefs and some years working in Hospice care.
Chris and I also are bound by a shared first-person experience with cancer. When you become the one in cancer treatment, issues of life and death rise to a level of personal attention those who’ve never had the disease can feel. The diagnosis and subsequent treatment can shape - or reshape- your thoughts on many subjects.
That being noted, you may be surprised he and I are in complete agreement in some areas. Possibly the most basic is the shared belief government should have little to no role in the matter. There are just two roles I would assign government. One is to remove laws blocking the choice for terminally ill patients. The other, allow medical professionals to create the necessary guidelines for when and how assisted suicide should be considered an option, then codify those requirements for the protection of all involved. Physicians and nurses who may participate in the final act need legal protocols. Such guidelines now exist in Oregon and Washington.
Chris and I have each been affected by someone related - or otherwise close to us - committing suicide. That desperate act may stop whatever the real - or perceived - suffering is felt by the departed. But it ignores the terribly painful load for those of us left behind. Guilt. Rage. Anger. Loss. Endless questions. Suicide is a terribly selfish act because there’s no consideration of loved ones and others who will be severely affected. The person committed to dying is beyond such thinking by that time.
He and I have other mutual experiences. So, the most interesting aspect to me is how such commonality can result in two positions so far apart.
Chris wrote of his opposition. My views come from very different exposures to end-of-life issues. I’ve been a Hospice volunteer, have had some Hospice training and participated for several years in a citizen advisory position overseeing a Hospice program. I’ve been at the bedsides of many people facing certain death. I’ve observed firsthand how patients deal with the waning days of their own mortality. I’ve seen it quiet and peaceful. I’ve seen it loud and hard.
My fervent support is not based on the Hemlock Society or any other citizen advocacy. It’s rooted deeply in personal witness of suffering and what the end of life experience is in its many guises. It’s confirmed by the many statements I’ve listened to from someone - or their families - who’ve said they wish they’d thought more carefully about the end of life before being overwhelmed by the subsequent trauma and pain.
One issue on which Chris and I disagree concerns who has used or favors use of the option thus far. He states it’s “the rich and powerful ... who come from the top one-tenth of one percent” of the citizenry who “brag about not paying taxes.”
That hasn’t been my personal experience. You may recall the 30-something woman from California who came to Oregon a few months ago with her husband to take advantage of our assisted suicide law. About as middle class American couple as anyone could be. She had a certain prognosis of a protracted, painful death. She chose not to wait. I’ve attended bakers, salesmen, blue collar workers and the homeless. Pain and death disregard economics. The choice to forestall suffering knows no social ranking or privilege.
I’m personally aware of at least three other assisted suicides in Oregon. In each case, there was no “rich and powerful” - no part of the top minuscule percentage of society. All were repeatedly diagnosed with debilitating, painful, end-of-life conditions. Whether not wanting to burden families with huge bills, no desire to suffer, or just wanting to take control of their situations, we don’t know. But those, and many other factors, come into sharp focus when you’re lying in that bed. I understand the desire to avoid those conditions and - if possessing the courage - to leave this world as easily and as comfortably as possible.
To me, the issue of end-of-life care is very much like that other one government keeps sticking it’s nose into - abortion. Both subjects are as personal and private as any can be. Both involve the patient, family and a physician. Neither has space in the treatment room for someone from government to kibbitz. There ultimately comes a time when desires of the one person at the center of both abortion and end-of-life issues are all that should be considered. Privately. We’re talking life and death.
I suspect Chris opposes abortion as well as assisted suicide. But, I suspect - despite our differing backgrounds - we hold similar views on both subjects. Our greatest commonality is a belief that there’s no role for government in such deeply personal life experiences. It grieves me politicians, bureaucrats and public do-gooders keep pushing their unwanted and unnecessary views in both matters.