Human Exceptionalism

Putting Suffering People Out of OUR Misery

The New York Times Magazine article about assisted suicide, byline Daniel Bergner, continues to amaze because his analysis actually looks behind the curtain of gooey euphemisms and blithe paeans to “choice.” The article, which I first referenced this weekend, is about former Governor Booth Gardner’s determination to fund and lead a drive to legalize assisted suicide in Washington-State by initiative. Bergner’s piece is unusual in that it allows opponents of assisted suicide to have their full say–and exposes the actual thinking of some proponents. As a consequence, the piece is rife with wisdom and insight into the true agenda behind the facade and false premise of “assisted dying” for the “terminally ill” for whom nothing else can be done to eliminate suffering.

For example, one commenter pointed out that what is legal is soon deemed what is normative. And in that would be a profound risk to people with disabilities–whom Gardner explicitly states he would like to have access to assisted suicide once it is legalized for the terminally ill. From Bergner’s piece:

She [Susan Wolf, whose father died of cancer] talked, then, as others had, about the threat of Gardner’s statute to society’s denigrated and dismissed citizens, but her words on law and culture suggested too a different danger. For the realization of Gardner’s vision would allow not only the terribly sick but the healthy to escape the horrors of death. Men like Wolf’s father might go more swiftly. My father [who has Parkinson’s] might die before his uncertain steps give way to immobility. And sons and daughters like me would not have to confront so much decrepitude and mortality, the realities that keep my visits too brief and infrequent. We would have less protracted and harrowing intimacy with degeneration and death. We would be spared, and that would be our loss.

In the world of Gardner’s vision, Wolf might not have leaned toward her father’s face for so long and stroked his hair so many times. And I would not have to find a new way to be with my father, with the skiing and swimming and walking gone, through all that will come next.

That is precisely the point. But do we care enough and have sufficient strength to heed it? Here is Bergner’s conclusion:

Yet what a luxury to think like this. What a luxury for the well to have their profound moments with the tortured. What a luxury, perhaps, even to focus so much on the effect Gardner’s law might have on society’s vulnerable. 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? Could they want anything more, at their very weakest, than the power to escape? Was that power worth more than each stroke of a child’s fingers through their hair?

I think the article underplays what can be done to alleviate or prevent the “torture,” but this does get to the nub: What matters most? What really counts? The supposedly “free” exercise of autonomy regardless of the harm and normative values it instills and the collateral damage it will cause? Or, is our primary purpose as humans and a society to protect and value those who are vulnerable and struggling, even though it means a few of us will suffer longer than we would otherwise have? How we answer this cultural conundrum will profoundly affect the morality of the 21st Century.


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