March 26, 2005

Fighting the Tyranny of Fundamentalism in Dying

Harper's Magazine has a powerful essay about dying and how Oregon's Death with Dignity affirms life, rather than belittling it. (via Avedon Carol)

Garrett Keizer reflects on how our modern medicine with its machines that prolong life long after one would have died in an earlier day is a manifestation of another fundamentalism of the day. Doctors have made death the enemy and strive to keep it at bay no matter what. One of the horrors of our time is the idea of being trapped in a suffering and dying body unable to escape this mortal coil. Thus, the fascination and revulsion watching the Terri Schiavo case has made many people aware of the need for a living will.

Oregon's Death with Dignity law drives the right wing mad because they believe to ask to escape life is a sin. Today we hear much about how the only people who ask to control their own death are depressed and if they were "normal", they would not beg to be released. Garrett asks why living the end of your life drugged by Zoloft is better than choosing your appointment with death.

This is a thoughtful essay about the topic of death, what it means to die, and one that is more than a little timely. Following is a brief excerpt:

Nevertheless, I see the Oregon Death with Dignity law as a truly revolutionary development, one that opposes fundamentalism in its two most virulent forms.

I do not mean the Christian and the Islamic but rather the religious and the technological, of which biotechnology is perhaps the most messianic strain. Both forms have gaudy notions of paradise—with rewards ranging from seventy-two virgins to fifty-seven varieties of cyborg—and a narrow appreciation of free will. Only one choice will save us: We must obey every stricture that passes for “traditional morality” or we must adopt every monstrosity that passes for “progress.” The zealots of both schools have disturbingly gleeful ways of describing the fate of infidels who resist either the words of prophecy or the wonders of hastened evolution.

In its dogged insistence on finitude, the Right to Die movement opposes not only the glib certainties of fundamentalism but also its penchant for apocalypse. This world doesn’t have to end, it says, and I don’t especially want it to; rather, I must end, and I prefer to do that on my own terms. I respect the rights of others to believe in such categories as “will of God” and “state of the art,” but I utterly reject the notion that the two are one and the same.

Of course, some would argue that the emerging discipline of palliative medicine shares that same rejection. Palliative medicine takes as its cardinal principles that death is an integral part of life and that care does not have to consist of cure. In short, that we must embrace our mortality. Unfortunately, that view always seems to translate as an embrace of palliative medicine. And I have to admit that there are things I fear about that latter embrace.

I fear, for one thing, that palliative medicine will eventually absorb and subordinate the grass-roots hospice movement. In other words, I fear that the nurses who came to take care of my mother-in-law will soon go the way of the midwife, whose name is now most likely to decorate the shingle of an obstetrical practice, like the sign of a mermaid outside a pub owned and operated by a pair of gents. I also fear the totalitarian mindset that goes with expertise, a fear I find justified by the tone of scorn directed at supporters of PAS. “There’s a control issue in all this,” says Lisa Szczepaniak, a palliative-care nurse and administrator at Dartmouth. Psychiatrist Herbert Hendin sounds a similar note in Seduced by Death when he says that advocates for a hastened death are “often depressed people with inordinate needs for control.” I do not think I am especially depressed or controlling, but I do hold to the rule of thumb that whenever specialists of any kind begin to talk in unison about your “control issues,” it is a good idea to note the location of the exits.

And finally, he asks what is the value of a life?

...The reductionism of the right extends to the meaning of life itself. The defining quality of human life, as I understand it, is relationship. If there is any idea under the sun that is certifiably “Judeo-Christian,” that is it. To be authentically pro-life means something more than protecting a life or my life. It means cherishing the lives of those who come after me or who, in the event of a degenerative illness, will need to take care of me: my wife, my kid, my friends, persons whose lives are likely to be shortened by the stresses of prolonging mine.

Do take the time to read it all.

Posted by Mary at March 26, 2005 09:07 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |