Human Exceptionalism

Heather MacAllister’s Partner Lashes Out

Please pardon this long post, but there is no way to abridge the discussion and to justice do the important and deeply emotional matters that are considered.

Last month, I came across a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that made me think that the assisted suicide death of a woman named Heather MacAllister in Oregon might have been a case of suicide tourism. Kelli Dunham, MacAllister’s partner, came across the post and expressed her “outrage.” Here is her comment in full:

“Maybe I need to stay the hell out of the blogosphere, but I came across this post, ironically on a ;Bioethics’ blog, authored by an ignorant asswipe by the name of Wesley Smith. He alleged that Heather’s choice was a case of “suicide tourism.” He also threatened to “look into it further. I submitted the following comment, but the comments are moderated so I can’t imagine it will actually appear:

“This was not a case of suicide ‘tourism.’ If you would have googled for half a second more, you would have found multiple other sources that reference Heather MacAllister moving to Oregon over 9 months ago to escape the high price of living in San Francisco. I am Heather MacAllister’s partner and I can personally attest that her decision was carefully made, and only made after fighting stage III ovarian cancer for three years with nothing but love, raw courage and her friends at her side. Assisted suicide would not have been my choice, not by a long shot, but it was her choice. And anyone who would have taken this choice away from her knows nothing of ‘ethics.’

“Heather had a memorial service in a city where she was no longer living because her courage, love of–and fight for–life inspired so many. She was a person who wanted to make the world a better place and she did. It’s a travesty that her last choices are being maligned by an elitist, self-righteous, ignorant prig who can’t even be bothered to research the allegation he is making. You disgust me

“Heather fought for life like the bitch femme diva goddess that she was. Heather was on chemo for almost three years without a break. Heather marshaled every resource available to her, including a cast of more than 160 ‘lovetroopers’ who researched, pushed, pulled, supported and made sure she had what she needed, and then some. Heather went on a multiple city, cross country tour with Big Burlesque more than a year into her treatment.

“Heather climbed the [epithet deleted] L’arche De Triumph after a 10 hour airplane flight and no sleep, all less than 36 hours after a chemo infusion. Heather ran away from home to Santa Cruz to find new treatment options when the docs in SF gave her up for dead. Heather lived 1 year, 2 months and 24 days after her SF oncologist gave her two weeks—(two weeks, did you read that Wesley Smith!?)–to live.

“The folks from the Death with Dignity non profit organization have called me twice about talking with the press and/or other groups about our experience. I haven’t bothered to return those phone calls, because I feel so ambivalent about the whole process. Truthfully, I miss Heather so much it’s an actual physical ache. My chest feels like it has something rattling around in it. So, of course, I sometimes selfishly have moments of wishing it had been different.

“But Heather got sweet release and death on her own damn terms. I am so glad that soul-less, empathy-impaired wankers like Wesley Smith were not able to keep that from her.”

Dunham’s angry reaction to my post is worth pondering. Read my original post: I never disparaged Ms. MacAllister. I did not criticize her. I did not diminish the difficulty of dealing with terminal cancer, which I would never do. (My dad died of colon cancer. I have been a hospice volunteer. Believe me, I understand the difficulties of cancer.) In fact, I did not characterize the morality of her assisted suicide in any way. Indeed, the entire post was directed at the Oregon law and the meaninglessness of the “residency” requirement. Hence, all of the criticisms that Ms. Dunham purportedly sees coming from me came out of her own mind. Such is the nature of grief.

I don’t like to personalize these discussions, but since Ms. Dunham raised the issue, it is worth noting that had Ms. MacAllister believed her San Francisco doctors’ prediction of two weeks to live, and had assisted suicide been legal in California, she would have qualified for assisted suicide under A.B. 374 at that point in time. Had she swallowed the prescribed poison pills at that time she and Ms. Dunham would have missed out on the life she yet had to live, a time that Ms. Dunham clearly treasures.

We should all sympathize with the Dunham’s grief and wish her well. Her deep pain honors her dead partner. But I also think we have to ponder the deeper meaning of perceiving “choice” as the end all and be all of liberty. To embrace any choice–regardless of what it is and no matter how destructive to self and those who love us–is to create a cultural milieu in which the weak and vulnerable become materially threatened. Indeed, this is precisely why the disability rights community is so adamantly against legalized assisted suicide.

It is also worth noting that the euthanasia crowd want to use MacAllister’s death to further their political agenda. One of the movement’s tactics is to take the profound emotionalism that surrounds such a death and use it as a club to prevent discussion of the wider public policy issues that must be contemplated in the debate over assisted suicide. Even so, I think the story Ms. Dunham demonstrates how very harmful legalizing assisted suicide would be. I repeat, if California had legalized assisted suicide, the time MacAllister and Dunham had beyond which the doctors predicted, might not have been lived. And no one would have ever known what was missed.

As MacAllister’s story demonstrates vividly, dying isn’t dead. It is living. This is why the hospice movement believes so strongly in suicide prevention. And that truth is one of the important understandings that assisted suicide advocacy diminishes. Indeed, for Ms. Dunham to think of herself as “selfish” for wishing things “had been different,” demonstrates vividly how profoundly harmful the assisted suicide movement really is.

(There are other angry comments to my original post at bioethics.org. And I did Google Heather MacAllister and came up with very little.)

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