I wrote this in 11th grade. Some of it repulses me now, and some amazes me. Funny how things work out.
It seems an irrelevant and rather quaint question as to whether it is possible to be so near to death as to crave it without being intrinsically depraved. Yet the question arises more often than any kindhearted man would like to see. Since the Quinlan debacle of 1976, an issue of common contention among Americans divided as always along racial, religious, sectional, and educational dividers has been euthanasia--the killing of a fellow human being under the assumption that it is a kinder fate than whatever death would otherwise await him.
Euthanasia covers a broad range of acts, each unique. Firstly, a person can always refuse treatment, and die from whatever affliction they are suffering from, with the idea that overbearing suffering will be cease with; this is voluntary euthanasia. The next most widely accepted, though also most debated, act of euthanasia is nonvoluntary euthanasia, most recently illustrated by the Terri Schiavo case, in which a person falls into an irreversible coma, is brain-dead, and has no chance whatsoever of recovery. In this instance a proxy may ask the doctor caring for the patient to halt life-giving care in favor of restful death. This is not considered homicide in America or under most religions. Legally, terminal sedation, or in common lexicon assisted suicide, is not homicide either; it is considered homicide under most Christian denominations, and denotes a form of palliative care in which a patient near death is put into a deep (and ultimately permanent, at least 'till trumpet sound and bodies wake) sleep and treatment is stopped. Here stops currently legal forms of euthanasia; the henceforth mentioned practices are (currently) ecumenically considered cold murder, in increasing degree of perversion. Involuntary euthanasia occurs with proxy permission but against the will of the patient. Mercy killing is the termination of a fellow being without their knowledge with the presumption that their suffering will be lessened with death; it is done with good intentions but is thoroughly illegal. Finally, the most sadistic of men are so bold as to label eugenics, a euphemism for racial cleansing, as medically valid euthanasia.
As much as we would like to believe it, those who fell under the Nazi spell during the darkest of German times were as human as we are. It is easy for us to believe that we could never lapse into this state of modern barbarism; yet it was even easier for those blinded by propaganda to turn their heads and write off Hitler's euthanization of hundreds of thousands of children and cripples with congenital defects in the name of medicine and morality. I fear that once the floodgates are opened, a new wave of racial cleansing and Darwinist idiocy will erupt. I fear Jack Kevorkian is the new Brandt.
Kevorkian, in fact, offers us a window into all that is wrong with those who support the argument for euthanasia. A self-proclaimed "modern day John Brown", he openly proposed, essentially, a quick-fix death factory, and has personally administered the ultimate and final opiate to countless (one hundred and thirty?) restless patients. Who is to say an inconvenient grandparent couldn't be dropped off at his death factory, signed off as incompetent to make decisions on his own, and euthanized, or rather, murdered?
Two cases have been brought to light which raise my skepticism as to his means and ends. One involved an ALS patient of thirty years. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a terminal disease, and is one of the most heartwrenching deaths one can imagine. Muscles turn to mush, the spinal column deteriorates, the brain loses the capacity to eat, converse, and, eventually, breathe. The cruelest part is that it never loses the capacity to think.
The problem is that it is doubtful that Kevorkian, or anyone else, presented this thirty-year old patient with enough options, or even attempted to dissuade him. These sorts of patients are certainly indisposed to depression; the patient could not foresee living with a tube down his throat. Death was a welcome bedfellow to his--depraved?--mind.
When Lou Gehrig was thirty years old, he already had ALS. One day, when he was in his early thirties, and in the prime of his career as a Hall of Fame baseball player, he found his muscular body incapable of opening a bottle of ketchup--roommate Bill Dickey had to do it for him. One game he slipped rounding first base--he had to crawl back to the bag to beat a throw, and couldn't get up without assistance. He won a Triple Crown, a feat accomplished five times in more than a century, and not since 1956, while his muscles were turning to slop. He died in 1941, less than two years after he stopped playing, and less than three years after diagnosis and his final All-Star season.
Though he knew would certainly die within the next couple years (life expectancy at diagnosis was three years), he nobly (and perhaps in delusion) wrote in a letter to his wife that he 'might need a cane in ten or fifteen years'. For the year and a half he spent in retirement, physically wasting away, he worked invaluably as a parole commissioner for the city of New York, guiding young delinquents to a more productive life, even as his was doomed. He lived life to the fullest, down to his final month, when he became completely bedridden. In his touching impromptu farewell speech, Gehrig mentioned his 'bad break' only twice, and rather concentrated upon the things he had to be thankful for: his stout teammates, his fatherly managers, his faithful fans, his devoted parents, his unwavering wife.
Should Lou Gehrig have known the full extent and horror of the disease, as we know today, one would like to say he would have reacted in the same way he did in reality--naming himself the 'luckiest man on earth', even when he had contracted a deadly disease through no fault of his own. Indeed, he was one of the unluckiest men on earth; two in every one hundred thousand Americans has the disease, and most of the cases do not turn severe until a later age than 37. He was, in short, unlucky as could be. He was also, in short, a model of nobility, courage, and all that is good with the nature of man.
The question is whether Kevorkian would have assisted Gehrig to die. It may be supposed within reason that Gehrig's case was one of the majority; he should not have been given doctoral assistance, should he have expressed the wish to choose his time of dying. From Kevorkian's past exploits we may surmise that he certainly would have. In 1993 he assisted the aforementioned ALS patient, who happened to be extraordinarily young for an ALS sufferer--only thirty years of age. This occurred within half a year of an incident in which Kevorkian erased records of a man retracting his wish to die minutes before the procedure was slated to begin; the show went on, the deceased's protests unheeded (this is the second case that raises my skepticism, the first being the ALS patient). It is safe to say Jack Kevorkian, perchance the most celebrated proponent of euthanasia, would have helped kill a still-useful Lou Gehrig-- a Lou Gehrig who still loved life--if he could have found an excuse.
Aristotle defined law as 'reason free from passion'. Until anyone can provide a good reason to act otherwise, Aristotle's word goes as gold-- absolutely true. As far as can be reckoned he's a tad more intelligent and level-headed and all that truck than any of us contemporary folk can lay claim to be. The essential nature of assisted suicide is such that it cannot be free from passion. Emotion, indeed, must play a large role in the act. How can it not? A life is ended forever. One cannot press rewind during one of these sorts of ventures. Veritably, the proponents of assisted suicide advance it as an act of compassion, a word that fundamentally is defined as 'suffering together'. Who suffers? One lives on, the other does not. One cannot trust doctors on the front lines to, even under codified law, act entirely objectively. One also cannot, as a human with a heart who knows himself to be susceptible to the same sorts of vulnerabilities, trust doctors to deny a suffering octogenarian his only wish (that is, his wish to die). Doctors who continually witness the inevitable carnage of the medical battlefield inevitably become depraved to a certain extent. Even acting with what they believe to be their patient's best interests in mind, problems arise. If euthanasia is to be codified passion must be first dealt with.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, deals with the wretchedness of a Nihilistic young law student who murders an old pawnbroker for what he deems the benefit of the community. With cold and calculating distance, he discriminates all humanity into two groups: ordinary and extraordinary. He concludes the ordinary, the 'louses', are doomed to slave away under whatever existing rules and laws govern their land; as a general rule, they cannot conceive of anything else. However, one in many (the student Raskolnikov puts it as one in a hundred thousand) is deemed extraordinary. These Nietzschean supermen possess the capacity, even the duty to overstep boundaries: that is, to overthrow corrupt establishments in favor of whatever they fancy to be better. The problem arises, the antagonist muses, when an ordinary man becomes confused, and thinks himself extraordinary, and capable of overstepping boundaries; Raskolnikov must intermittently convince himself that he is extraordinary, a new Napoleon, as it were, rather than a common louse.
The problem is in essence thus: how many ordinary louses will consider themselves Napoleonic? How many ordinary cases will be transmogrified into having an extraordinary mien? And is one in a hundred thousand enough to make up for the occasional, inevitable mistake?
Right now, it is considered permissible to allow a person in a vegetative state, without any chance of resuscitation, to die, per Supreme Court ruling (see Quinlan v. State of New Jersey); this not homicide by most Christian denominations, either (or Jewish; however, it is against Islamic law). However, should we advance the limit further, it is necessary to fear that the stone will not stop rolling until it reaches the bottom of the hill. Moss will not grow fat on this rolling stone. Progress in this case will be irreversible. With every passing year the 'right' to die will be granted to a new group--there will always be those who are not satisfied. With the intention of granting permissibility to only the next rung down the ladder, we confirm the inevitability of reaching the bottom rung: involuntary euthanasia, practiced perhaps first on orphans or friendless, poor, senile or diseased old folk whom no one will miss. Eventually we will progress, or rather, should I say, regress, to the point where disabled infants are euthanized at birth, without parental consent.
Nazi cleansers, under the T4 program, took disabled or malformed infants away to 'special care nurseries', where each and every one of them died of 'pneumonia'. Who knows if we will be strong enough to stand up for the sanctity of every life, when it will be so much easier, and, daresay, more beneficial, to the human race? Who can argue with the advantage we would be provided, should we eliminate, say, all carriers of the Huntington's disease gene? This sounds dangerously utilitarian, and could even be connected to some form of misconceived Utopianism. It also echoes a certain deluded Austrian.
The basest instinct of humanity is the urge to procreate, and as a corollary, survive. This, in addition to the grace of God, has allowed humanity to have made it this far. And we have made it far. Why should this instinct fail us in this hour? Dying with dignity is rationally not thought of as dying at a self-appointed hour. That is simply control. Dignity is having the courage and grace to accept whatever fate the white-robed Spinners have apportioned. Dying with dignity is living, most of all living, and fighting to the very end, acting as a role model for those who will inevitably follow thou to their respective dooms. Lou Gehrig exemplified this virtue. So did Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Freddie Mercury; one gets the sense that in time Muhammad Ali will set the bar for dying with dignity as high as can be.
Yet we cannot let ourselves get too comfy in the throne of high morality, lest our noses touch the sky. For every thousand cases, one is so exceedingly abnormal as to require an unconventional solution. Exceptions must always be made for the exceptional. When the rare occasion arises, it should be well within the right of an individual to request an end, should they and a capable doctor believe it right. If power over our own bodies is not within our humble grasps, what is? A man within reason and within a democracy shall always have the right to refuse treatment, should he wish to die in that way. We revere the samurai of medieval Japan. To them defeat was mental torture, torture just as horrible as any debilitating and lethal disease that can be contracted today. Their honor killings are widely considered justified. How is voluntary euthanasia any different? Should anyone lapse into a coma, should their family or guardian express with finality to expedite the unavoidable, should a qualified medical expert assert that there is no life remaining (that is, a lack of self-awareness) in a body, how can it be wrong to allow a tormented soul to rest? Ethically and morally there is no fault in allowing nature to run its course; can you kill a man in which life is absent?
Yet the population, specifically the educated population, of America has decided that the rare benefits outweigh the unlikely yet ultimately inevitable risks.
The purpose of a government is to implement the will of the majority and respect the will of the minority.
In accordance with the public opinion following the Terri Schiavo case, those in favor of voluntary euthanasia outnumber those against. Thus it is unavoidably right that voluntary euthanasia of some sort be codified and institutionalized. Yet to avoid radicalization and degeneration one must tread softly and choose their steps with judiciousness.
Nonetheless, in the interest of the commonwealth, a government cannot within its interests venture to generally approve of or condemn euthanasia. Instead it must trust the judiciary and medical branch to act with enlightened discretion and it must leave the choice ultimately in the hands of the patient. Those powers not enumerated nominally to the government are reserved by the people of the United States--the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ultimately we must trust the system of checks and balances that has given America its stability thus far to keep things within healthy moderation: a depraved patient is checked by the (hopefully) astute and discriminating doctor, who is in turn checked by the judiciary, whose power is inherently taken from the people and directly taken from the vote of the populace.
The proposition is strictly thus: require living wills as part of the driver's license package--with this a good deal of avoidable legal business will, in fact, be avoided; expel from all medical profession any doctor who acts to allow a patient to die irresponsibly, that is, in a way that will cause undue pain or to allow a patient to die whose wish to die is not thoroughly justified, twice; ban assisted suicide except under stringently monitored, exactly followed procedure, perhaps requiring that the patient be in immediate danger from his illness and physical rather than emotional distress; encouragement of voluntary euthanasia, that is, refusing treatment and dying naturally, so as to avoid legal complications; and pertinaciously pursuing those who engage in unlawful versions of euthanasia, including involuntary or nonvoluntary euthanasia and mercy killings. As hard as it is to be objective when a thing as sacred as a life is at stake, it must be so, or else the whole plan falls to shambles.
The dearest mantra to an American heart is that each and every citizen is guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Is not that exceptional case where death is better than life an illustration of all three principles? Death is a part of life as integral as birth; an alpha must have an omega. Ergo the right to die is included in the right to live. Liberty is the right of choice. And is not bliss, nirvana, heaven, moksha found by the true believer in the afterlife? These certain cases where euthanasia is justified are simply and surely the choice to die in pursuit of something better; life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.