The so-called murder-suicide of a North Haven couple suffering from Alzheimer’s and cancer touches me, not only sympathetically, but personally. I have a longtime friend who, as I write, is facing a prolonged dying in "the American way."
She is a virtual prisoner of what, echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one might call "the medical-religious complex."
Certainly, there are reasons to hold life sacred and to beware the institutionalization of death-dealing. Counterweighing these is the respect due to an individual’s autonomy in matters of ultimate value, especially the quality of one’s own life and death.
My friend has led an active, meaningful life, but now finds herself unable even to read, or to take pleasure in personal company, or to get out of her hospice bed, because of both the pain of her illness and the grogginess induced by the drugs used to combat her pain. While everyone caring for her is well-intentioned, the fact is, as she just put it to me, "I want this to be over yesterday."
Arguments against euthanasia are complex and far more difficult to make, she said.
"Today, the argument for euthanasia is the easiest to make," she said, noting the concern for the autonomous individual. "It's my right, my body. The individual has the right to choose death."
The arguments against euthanasia concern its effects on institutions, such as the health care system, hospitals, doctors and society as a whole, she said.
People often argue that we are merciful to dogs by euthanizing them, so why shouldn't we do the same for human beings, she said. "We're not dogs!"
Somerville said one of the biggest challenges is to argue there is something special about human beings without using religious reasons.
Traditional religion used to serve as a way of putting talk of death into a context of eternity, she said. "It is very difficult to justify suffering without some form of religious argument."