Human Exceptionalism

Pew Poll “Right to Die” Terminology Misleading

The Pew Poll, which I reported on below, also finds huge majorities favoring the so-called “right to die.” This is an ambiguous term, often used by assisted suicide advocates to identify their cause. But this section of the poll is not referring to euthanasia or assisted suicide. Rather, it measures the belief that people have the right to refuse or stop unwanted medical treatment. That is a completely different moral issue from killing as a response to the difficulties associated with illness or disability.

The poll finds an unsurprising 84-10 in support of permitting death to come from natural causes by withdrawing life-sustaining treatment or other measures. Count me among the majority. As a former hospice volunteer, whose father died while under hospice care, I understand completely the importance of having the right not to have a respirator, chemotherapy, surgery, or even antibiotics. In the old parlance, people should not be hooked up to machines against their will.

However, I believe that feeding tubes should be analyzed differently. I believe cutting off feeding tubes from people based on quality of life judgments or cognitive impairment alone is immoral.

But I am not the dictator. It seem clear that people want the right to be dehydrated by removal or withholding of tube-supplied nutrition and hydration if they become profoundly cognitively disabled. And indeed, that is the law in all fifty states.

That being noted, it does seem to me that given the fact that depriving people of water and nutrition can only have one outcome, and given the profound symbolism inherent in refusing to provide such basic care, the responsibility for refusing feeding tubes should be on the patient and should have to put in writing. Absent that, the strong presumption of the law should be to provide such sustenance in all medically appropriate cases. Otherwise, we risk resurrecting the notion of the life unworthy of life wherein people are taken out to put them out of our misery.


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