Friday, February 19, 2010

AIDS and Aid in Dying.

Newsweek's Sarah Kliff has a new article up that looks at how the AIDS epidemic focused the gay community on end of life and assisted suicide issues (and, one could argue, on the need for same-sex marriage).

The lede of the article is BBC commentator Ray Gosling's recent arrest after admitting on a documentary that years ago he smothered his suffering lover with a pillow, and Gosling's subsequent arrest for questioning. Kliff writes:

Gosling's admission and his ensuing arrest was certainly shocking. But it also confirmed what assisted-suicide experts already knew: legal issues of hastening death have long plagued AIDS patients and their doctors. "Certainly, we know it's a community where this type of bootleg assisted suicide occurred throughout the 1990s," says Ian Dowbiggin, the author of A Concise History of Euthanasia and an expert on the right-to-die movement. "This specific example of assisted suicide, I don't know how common it is, but it is likely more common in this particular community than elsewhere."

Much of it has to do with the nature of the disease, which began to disproportionately affect gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s. AIDS patients were ravaged by tumors, seizures, and paralysis, and doctors had little to offer by way of a cure. Early treatments often merely prolonged this suffering. "People who suffered from AIDS were naturally interested in assisted suicide, whether it was legal or not," says Dowbiggin. As Gosling explained on the BBC of his own partner's disease, "Doctors said, 'There's nothing we can do'; he was in terrible pain." Legally, there was nothing his doctors likely could have done: in the United Kingdom, as in the United States (except for Washington and Oregon), physicians are barred from assisting a patient's suicide.

I just finished reading Dowbiggin's book not too long ago and recommend it for a good overview of the assisted suicide movement (though from the writing I would suppose he's not the most dynamic dinner guest). He opens the book with a look at how AIDS played a role in the re-energizing of the aid in dying movement then combs through ideas and practices of assisted suicide throughout history.

It's a wonder to me that gay rights have shown their most traction in same-sex marriage until I consider that in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, men were dying as their lovers waited outside the hospital, unable to obtain visiting rights, unable to exercise power of attorney, and removed from the legal and medical process by a shaming society.

As we watch the same-sex movement gain ground, it's good to remind ourselves of all the benefits, legal and social, that marriage delivers. And as we watch the movement for patient's rights form alliances, before thought unnecessary or unproductive, it's good to remember who in society is most effected by discriminatory health care delivery and laws.

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