Assisted Dying? Let’s Talk About It.

I note that George Carey, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, has come out in favor of “assisting dying” under certain circumstances. Surely, this is about the only thing he and John Shelby Spong have ever agreed on! Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also expressed his support of this over the last several days.

In recent years, I have found myself moving toward that position as well, not because of any personal or family need at the moment but because, like Lord Carey, I believe that modern technology has brought us to a place where this option may need to be available to some whose lives have been extended to the point where there is little to do except suffer endless torment day after miserable day. Pain management has not kept up with life-lengthening measures.

I am aware of the arguments against assisted dying: the “slippery slope” which could lead to a devaluing of the aged; the economic factors which could result in families “hastening” the dying process for material gain in inheritances, for example; societal cooperation with a psychologically disturbed person simply wishing to end it all prematurely.

Those arguments need to be taken seriously and discussed rationally and compassionately. Enormous ethical problems are presented by all kinds of medical procedures and end of life issues anyway today – from organ transplantation to appropriate levels of medication to be administered to assist in pain management – and yet these challenges do not prevent us from making decisions in these circumstances and living with the consequences.

I have thought about this issue for many, many years since, as a 17 year old hospital orderly working the night shift, I cared for a 43 year old woman with advanced, irreversible Parkinson’s disease, completely paralyzed, unable to eat solid food, lying immobilized in her hospital bed save for a steady tremor which racked her entire body and had created a bed sore at the base of her spine large enough to put one’s fist in, who whispered tortuously one night as I replenished her water pitcher, “Please, kill me.”

Of course, I was not tempted to do so, nor do I believe that this is a case which would likely be considered for assistance in dying. Nonetheless, I understood her request.

I also have rarely felt so “right” in taking an action as I did gazing lovingly through my tears deep into the soft brown eyes of a chocolate Lab as he closed them for the last time ending long hours of pain and fear, euthanized in the office of a compassionate veterinarian who joined me in my grief. This was not sentimentality, but compassion.

If we can thoughtfully and prayerfully take such merciful action in the lives of our beloved pets, why can we not at least discuss – practically and theologically – when and under what circumstances such compassion might not also be shown to our other loved ones.

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