Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Is a Natural Death?

Elana Premack Sandler at Psychology Today asks her readers what they think about assisted suicide as she feels her way through the subject in the wake of a host of publicity. I appreciate her nuanced and open willingness to examine the topic, particularly when so many do make a snap-judgement about assisted suicide. I recommend you read her entire post and comment! But there's a point in one of her paragraphs that I want to jump off from. She writes:

Does assisted suicide undermine suicide prevention? "Obviously!" you might think. Working for a suicide prevention organization, and as a suicide survivor, I really wrestle with supporting idea of suicide - at all.
Since so many people who choose assisted suicide are suffering from incurable degenerative diseases, the cessation of pain - psychache or not - is very appealing. Just as I wish that people who are in extreme emotional pain did not have to experience such terrible pain, I wish the same for people in extreme physical pain. But, will a person who dies by assisted suicide experience more dignity and peace than they would have if they had died by natural causes?

Ok, maybe a quick point. Then I'll jump off. The recent report from the first year of legalized Death with Dignity in Washington state shows that most of those terminal patients who elected for DwD said their reason was autonomy. More so than fear of pain or existing pain. I'm always suspect of polls that ask people in crisis and distress to identify what the cause is. It's almost unfair to ask a dying patient to identify why they are ready to die. But nonetheless, a majority of patients said autonomy. End of point.

What I want to take up from the above paragraph is that tired but prevalent phrase: "natural causes." Once was a time when death meant the rather simultaneous cessation of heart beat, breathing and brain function. Those days are over. Medicine now can maintain heart beat and breathing almost indefinitely. That leaves brain function. As I noted yesterday, Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terri Schiavo proved that many, particularly those in the extreme religious right, oppose the use of brain function as a determining factor for death. This brings the term "natural causes" to a new definition.

All three women could eventually breath on their own. All had functioning hearts. Both functions were essentially resuscitated via CPR, or other techniques that shock the heart and lungs back to operation. Prior to the invention and widespread use of defibrillators, CPR, respirators, and even 911 in the early 70s these women would have died of their initial injuries. Their lives were, after resuscitation, prolonged via artificial nutrition and hydration and the battles over their lives stemmed from their family members attempting to remove them from ANH.

The prevalence of amazing, life-prolonging technological and medical advancements does extend American lives. This is a wonderful and miraculous thing. But it has changed how we die and what we now call death. Few deaths these days can be considered natural, however. It's time we reconsider the term and in doing so, start to talk about what death now means.

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