Usually this column is devoted to issues of elder abuse, or elder care, but today I want to explore another issue that affects the elderly, and is growing significantly and encompasses both elder abuse and elder care simultaneously.
As our population ages and useful life far outstrips our life expectancy, we nonetheless are still encountering far larger numbers of people who are alive, but perhaps not really living. It is over the issue of what constitutes a viable life, and our “right” to end it that a battle is being waged right under our noses, even though few of us seem to be aware of its existence, much less its implications.
The battle is between forces who support the “right to die” or pro-euthanasia, or “death with dignity” concept, and those who believe the last thing in the world you want is a government panel deciding at what point your life no longer has value or meaning, and checking off a box on a standardized form that seals your death – even if you approve of it.
While it would seem that the battle is a disjointed effort by scattered and unrelated proponents or opponents depending on your viewpoint, the reality is quite different.
The issue is being debated in Europe, Australia, Canada and here in the US on a regular basis with physician-assisted suicide legal in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and in Switzerland.
The recent death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was imprisoned in the US for advocating physician assisted suicide, brought the issue before the public again, but already it is receding to the back burner or public attention.
In May Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed ban on assisted suicide and another that would have prevented people from other countries using Swiss suicide clinics. This was a major issue in Great Britain where there has been extensive coverage of people traveling to Switzerland to end their lives.
But even though the assisted suicide movement has vocal proponents, who on occasion are successful, it has its opponents too.
Seattle Attorney Margaret Dore for instance, argues in editorial pieces that the picture painted by assisted suicide proponents is not exactly as it might appear.
Generally, proponents of assisted suicide point to the wishes of competent people who are suffering from progressive diseases that ultimately will rob them of all normal functions, but might prolong their agony and the burden on their loved ones for years or even decades. They maintain that faced with this bleak outlook a competent person should be able to make a decision to end their life at a point where they still retain some function and dignity, and have not become a physical and financial burden to their families.
Dore is aware of this argument but she also makes some compelling points in her writings on the issue. Take for instance the state of Montana where physician-assisted suicide is supposedly considered legal.
That may be the way it appears on the surface, but Dore points out that
Dore also states that legalization of physician-assisted suicide can lead to new forms of elder abuse, writing that
In Montana, preventing elder abuse is official state policy. If Montana would legalize physician-assisted suicide, a new path of abuse would be created against the elderly.
Dore also refers to what can be construed as a very loose interpretation of the term “terminally ill.” In Montana litigation, she writes, the phrase
This definition is broad enough to include patients with chronic conditions who could “live for decades.” “[The] definition is broad enough to include an 18 year old who is insulin dependent or dependent on kidney dialysis, or a young adult with stable HIV/AIDS. Each of these patients could live for decades with appropriate medical treatment. Yet they are ‘terminally ill’ according to the definition promoted by advocates of assisted suicide.”
Despite a century of wars, pollution, and new forms of incurable diseases, the human population is growing exponentially. Shortages of basic needs including food and especially water are predicted in many outlets.
From where I sit it seems we could go a long, long way to curtailing pollution if we cared enough. And between advances in food engineering and birth control we should be able to both keep the worldwide population in check, and produce enough to keep anyone from growing hungry.
Science fiction writers have been predicting for a very long time that the time will come when the world will be so overcrowded that human life will lose all meaning. I guess that’s possible but it seems that we would begin running out of people right after we start running out of food and water.
I have had discussions with many friends on the issue of what constitutes a viable life that is worth continuing and when does that viability end. It has been noted that our definitions may well change with our own personal circumstances.
Meanwhile, I believe the issue of extended life, when it should end, and by what means, requires an open and objective debate. I don’t want to live to see human life disregarded and people cast aside like an obsolete fashion accessory – all by government decree.
And it may help to remember the words of both Edgar G. Robinson and Charlton Heston in the 1973 movie Soylent Green. As both Robinson and Heston’s characters finally acknowledged: “Soylent Green is people!”
If you don’t get the connection, I suggest you watch the movie.