Article on Assisted Suicide Asks Questions of Heart and Conscience

  • In my previous post, I wrote about couples who committed murder-suicide as a last, desperate act to stay "independent" and out of nursing homes. A New York Times article by Daniel Bergner, titled "Death in the Family," is a riveting story about another kind of suicide, a death considered by some with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as a choice preferable to living out the disease.


    Bergner begins with the story of Booth Gardner, one time governor of Washington State. He is 71 and has Parkinson's disease. Gardener's "last campaign" is to bring physician- assisted suicide to the state of Washington. His logic is "my life, my death, my control." His campaign goes by the name of "death with dignity."

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    The story follows Gardner's campaign, and spends time addressing Gardner's less than stellar relationship with his son, who has very strong religious objections to Booth Gardner's campaign issue.


    Bergner also talks with Susan Wolf, a professor at both the law and medical schools of the University of Minnesota who has devoted her career to bioethics. Wolf has, for decades, opposed assisted suicide. She feels that, among other things, women would be unfairly targeted, even by themselves, for early death once they could no longer do what they've traditionally done - be caregivers. Would they feel that their own lives were without value because they could no longer care for others?


    However, Wolf ran into a personal dilemma when her once dynamic father, now wasting away physically and terrified emotionally, asks her to accelerate his death. She struggled with her beliefs as she witnessed her father's pain.


    Bergner's own father has Parkinson's disease. He, too, is conflicted. He says poignantly, of assisted suicide "...And sons and daughters like me would not have to confront so much decrepitude....We would be spared, and that would be our loss."


    Yet, he also says, "How could such ennobling considerations matter, in the end, to the dying, who are lost within the base and brutal truths of their decomposing bodies?"


    This is a story that covers all the bases and leaves the reader with all his or her questions in tact. It's not a story about answers. It's a story that encourages a tortuous thought process about the right to live and the right to die.


    My mother, suffering intense physical and emotional pain, said to me more than once, "Can't you just give me a little black pill so we can be done with this?"


    My response to that was always something like, "I know you are having a tough time, but we can't do that. Let's see what more we can do to help your comfort level."


    My mother lived with that pain and that attitude for a long time, but she did, eventually, die a natural death. I'm left to wonder, from time to time, what my answer to her would have been if I'd actually had the choice to help her die. What would I have said?


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Published On: December 14, 2007