Thursday, February 18, 2010

Death Becomes Him

Yesterday I shared here an overview of the March issue of The Atlantic, the former Atlantic Monthly, ultimately drawing attention to an article which I found especially significant, "Death Becomes Him" by Bruce Falconer. The article is significant because the subject matter is significant.

It was once predicted that physician assisted suicide would be the issue of the nineties in the same manner that abortion had become the issue of the previous two decades. Men like Derek Humphry (Hemlock Society founder) and Dr. Jack Kervorkian brought the matter to national attention by their active advocacy.

But it's a topic journalists don't seem to glom onto because, I'm guessing, it is a dinner conversation we generally dislike to engage in. It makes us uncomfortable to think about death, and maybe we're just not entirely sure how to respond when this issue is being discussed. According to Falconer we also have a hard time with this topic because of all the lingo surrounding it which we may only have an imprecise grasp of. Concepts like euthanasia by omission, active euthanasia, involuntary euthanasia, voluntary passive euthanasia and the like get extra complicated when we add slogans like "right to die" and "death with dignity" into the vocabulary. Nor do religious and moral beliefs relish attempts to quantify costs or measure suffering. How much is too much for either of these?

Even if it hasn't been talked about that much, the issue has not disappeared. And "Death Becomes Him" includes a useful summation of how far things have evolved in the past two decades.

The focus of the article is on Dignitas, the organization founded by Ludwig Minelli, who presents himself as a humanitarian who helps people kill themselves. There are actually four (or at least four) organizations helping people choose death for themselves in Switzerland, which first legalized assisted suicide in 1942. Minelli's is the first to go international. His explanation is that it didn't seem right for someone in Zurich to use his services and someone across the border in France to be denied.

In the spring and summer of 1992 I published a series of articles on ethical issues in terminal health care for a midwest seniors publication called The Senior Reporter. While researching the article I had access to many people in the medical and ethics communities whom I would never have met had it not been for this project. I am ever grateful for the keen insights they provided into the problems and complexities of these end of life issues. If anything, it would appear nothing has been wholly resolved, but the dialogue has continued.

For the next two days I want to present arguments in favor and in opposition to legalizing doctor assisted suicide. Several states currently permit the practice, but it is not yet a national policy. It might be helpful, if things were to move further down that path, for people to have a clear understanding of why people have adopted the positions they stand for.

But in preparation, if you have time, I recommend the article "Death Becomes Him" which you will find online here at The Atlantic.

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