May 1, 2014

The Right to Die

Skull and crossbones
Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is not a suicide note. I'm not ready to die just yet. There are still a few things I'd like to do first. This is also not some sort of abstract thought experiment in which I write about something to clarify my thoughts or try tp provoke thought among my readers. I've been thinking about this subject for awhile now, and I mean what I am about to say.

When it comes to death, there is something I very much want for myself and for each of you: the option to die with dignity when we decide we are ready. I'm not talking about our families having the option to pull the plug without conservative politicians interfering, although I certainly hope we'd have that right too. No, I am talking about something quite a bit more controversial than turning off the life support.

The option I want for myself, you see, is active euthanasia (i.e., physician-assisted suicide). Should I decide that I'm ready to go in order to spare myself some pain and suffering, I'd like the option of a lethal injection. We do this for our pets and recognize it as compassionate; I think we should have the same option for ourselves. I think we should be able to end our lives in much the same manner.

Of course, I would like this option in the event of a painful terminal illness. This is probably the least controversial scenario for it, but I'm not content to leave it there. You see, I'd like the option even outside of a terminal condition. I'd like it even in the event that I simply decide I'm ready to die. Maybe I reach the point where life is no longer enjoyable. Maybe I decide that I'm not willing to enter an assisted living facility or endure all the awful things about the aging process we rarely speak about.

I'd like to have the option available to me for a quick and relatively painless death without having to worry about botching a suicide attempt and ending up with brain damage or being kept alive on machines against my will. And even if you are confident you would never exercise such an option, I'd like you to have it as well.

So why do we not all have this option available to us? To some degree, we can blame religion. Religious believers have meddled in our government to the point where many of us do not have this right. But I don't think this is the whole story. Our culture's refusal to accept the realities of death, to talk openly about these realities, and shield ourselves from the awareness of our own mortality are important too. Much of this does overlap with religious nonsense, but I don't think we can blame all of it on religion.

To some extent, the controversy over abortion boils down to whether we want women to have the right to make important decisions about what is happening in their own bodies. Many of us say that abortion must remain legal, in part because we recognize the significance of this choice and we want women to have the option even if an individual woman can always opt not to exercise it. Others are willing to deny women this right because they think they are protecting a potential person. The debate rages on.

What I am asking for here is barely even debated. It remains illegal in most states, and there is little talk of changing that. What I am proposing does not involve any other persons, actual or potential. This should make it far less controversial than abortion, but this does not seem to be the case.

We in the United States are fond of talking about our freedom. After listening to us pound our chests and yell about our freedom, someone unfamiliar with our country might be forgiven for concluding that we really do care deeply about it. But what could possibly be a more important freedom than the freedom to die on one's own terms? This is a freedom we should have.