The rights of the individual are very important in our society and are pertinent in many areas of both law and science. After the class discussion on patients’ rights and medical testing in terminally ill patients, I would like to discuss the right to die in the context of individual choice and control over one’s body.
Although no one can say with absolute certainty how long another person will live, medicine has advanced to a point where some diseases can be put on a reasonably definite timeline. Doctors may not be able to determine the exact moment death will occur but in many cases, they can give a reasonable forecast in months, weeks, or even days. In cases where there is a terminal diagnosis tied to a firm timeline that is medically sound, I believe that it should be up to the individual how she wants to spend the time she has left, so long as no one else is harmed by her conduct. I’m not talking about fulfilling a lifelong dream of killing someone else or robbing a bank, but rather of an individual taking control of her own body and her own life while she still has the ability to do so.
Many terminal illnesses are excruciatingly painful to the afflicted. Often, medications which would alleviate the pain can only be given in doses large enough to lessen the pain. Doctors talk merely of making a patient ‘as comfortable as possible’ until she dies. This often means the patient suffers for long periods of time, though admittedly, not as much as she would have without medication. Why do we force patients to endure this? Why do we force our loved ones to live like this? Especially in cases where the patient, while still mentally competent, has expressed her wish to avoid prolonged suffering, I don’t see any valid reason for this.
What is gained by such a course of action? The patient is in pain and will not recover. Does it benefit her to live in pain despite having expressly stated her desire to end the pain? If a patient lapses into a coma at the end of her life after such an illness, what benefit to the person, the family, or society as a whole is achieved by denying her wish to end her own life? More importantly, what does it harm any of the parties to allow her wish to be granted? I don’t see how anyone can decide that another person’s wishes with regards to her health and life should be ignored where her wishes were expressed clearly and while she was competent to make her decision.
Finally, when an animal is in pain, many people will exclaim that putting the poor animal out of its misery is the only humane thing to do. The reasoning seems to be that an animal which cannot survive anyway will be benefited by having its life ended sooner rather than suffering additional pain that serves no purpose and will not result in any improvement to its condition. I don’t see why it’s reasonable to end the life of a much-loved but suffering animal that is incapable of expressing its wish either to suffer to the natural end or speed the end along, while a much-loved relative who begs for release is denied. I understand the importance placed on human life. I’m not contesting that here. I simply don’t see why it is horrible to end the life of someone who is not going to recover and who has expressed both prior to and during her illness a desire to end her suffering rather than wait for a ‘natural end’ to her pain. Who is benefited in such a situation? How are we better as a society for forcing the unwilling to suffer greatly while dying slowly? It seems kinder to me to allow someone in such a position to make her choice and end her pain, to make her last action here an exercise of the free will that is so important to individuals and society in this country.