Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 678 Medically Assisted End of Life

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

I’ve entitled this episode Medically Assisted End of Life

Sleepless night. “You Don't Know Jack” is a movie released in 2010 concerning death. You can still view it on Amazon Prime and I suppose elsewhere. It deals with real death: yours and mine. That is why I didn't sleep. It is always a bit disconcerting to contemplate your own mortality. The movie tells the tale of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his effort to alleviate the suffering of individuals when death is imminent. He believes in the right of individuals to choose how and when they might end their own life. It seems like that would be a pretty basic decision that might be agreeable to all; like free speech, or free expression or religious freedom. But it isn't.

It is hard to make an argument that the idea of alleviating painful suffering that many times precede death is wrong. It is your life. Shouldn't that be your decision? That is about as straightforward as it gets. Your neighbors, your relatives, your friends and your government can just butt out. They are not the ones doing the suffering. Seems like this should be left up to whoever is doing the suffering. Yet, that right is denied in much of America. As of today only 9 jurisdictions have legalized assistance in end of life decisions. See if your state is one of them: California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. All the rest: 41 states, it is considered illegal. In all the other states you can go to jail for assisting ending the suffering of a terminally ill person.

Of course we are talking about taking a life here. A lot of people have a big problem with that. I think we pretty much all have a problem with that idea. We like to believe that we wouldn't kill anyone or assist in the killing of anyone. You will notice the change in the words used: killing someone or ending suffering of someone. Words we choose to use are so very powerful.

It is like being opposed to killing but yet agreeing to participate in a war as a soldier or killer of human beings. “That's different” I heard someone say. Or not believing in killing but yet approving of capital punishment. “Well that is different'', I heard someone else say. The state makes laws that approve of killing in war or the killing of criminals. Do we really want the state to have ultimate authority over how much we should suffer before we die? No question about the fact that we are going to die.

Being against the law is enough of a reason for most folks. Anything that is against the law is wrong. Many years ago I studied moral development or reasoning in a summer intensive session under Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard. We read, thought and talked about the different levels of moral reasoning. He thought there were five or perhaps six stages of moral development that we all go through or may go through. We can get arrested at any level: two, three, four or five. We can get stuck. Most of us never reach the highest level. But there is a hierarchy. We proceed from one to the other in a very logical way. We must have one before two and two before three and so on. The mind does not skip a level. The models with the highest levels were Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. It is hard to argue that they would disagree on anything. 

The highest level of moral reasoning does not rest on law. It focuses on ideals and principles. These principles are universal in nature and apply to all people, rich and poor, while and black, old and young. They  involve the idea of reciprocity and universality and the cloak or veil of ignorance meaning that we don’t know what role we might play in a moral dilemma. 

In this particular dilemma the participants are: The suffering individual who desires to end their own life, a relative or friend who might assist in ending their life, and society as a whole. If we were to throw a cloak or veil over the participants and then  assume one of the roles not knowing which role we would be assigned, how would we choose? Kohlberg thought we would always decide in favor of the less fortunate In this case the person facing suffering and emanating death. This is a sinfully short description of Kohlberg”s thoughts but it gives you an idea. His reasoning was based on a book by John Rawls entitled, “A Theory of Justice”.

The point being that laws come from these principles or ideals, or I should say, they should come from these principles and ideals. Many times they don’t. They come from political leaders or power brokers of the moment. When this happens they can be bad laws. Bad laws sent Thoreau to jail. Bad law sent Martin Luther King to jail. Bad  law forced Jesus and Gandhi to suffer persecution. History is filled with examples. 

No one should play God and that is what taking a life is all about. This argument is voiced in opposition against assisted suicide all the time Kevorkian argues that we play god every time we give you an injection to keep you alive, every time ou take a pill, everytime you are immunized, every time surgery is performed. We play god on a daily basis and welcome it. If we left all of these actions up to God our lifespan would be very short and brutal. We accept playing God without a thought. At the moment three different medications keep me going. If it were left up to god I would have died long ago.

“You Don’t Know Jack” is very aptly named. I knew who Jack Kewvorkian was and what he had done but I had never spent a couple of hours in his mind. The movie takes us there. Even if you are in opposition to what he has to say it might be good to at least hear him state his case. Today I feel like I do know Jack. And I’m glad I live in Washington state. 

This is Retirement Talk. 

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