‘Dying With Dignity’ Is More Moral

Medical Care has come a long way sing 1929
Photographer unknown

“Dying with dignity” is the new, more palatable way to say what we meant by euthanasia in the past. But semantics haven’t fooled anyone; the concept is still hotly debated. For some people, the idea is abhorrent; others think it’s abhorrent to force dying people to needlessly suffer.

The latter has been my opinion since I first heard of euthanasia in the 1980s.

The word “euthanasia” has only appeared in this blog twice before, and each time only in passing. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Rick Santorum invented statistics about it in order to make an erroneous point. And in 2002*, I wrote: “I can also see that euthanasia has its place as well…”

(* I didn’t have a blog in 2002. That entry was originally just a file on my computer, which I later added to the blog.)

◊ Development Of My Position

This is a rare case of a position on which I’ve never swayed.

My first memory of the idea is from my junior year of high school (1988-89). I remember our history class debating it briefly and then several students turned to me as the most blatant representative of the religious right. I said I didn’t understand what the fuss was about; the Bible doesn’t prohibit it. It seemed like the Christian thing to do, to mercifully end someone’s suffering when there is no hope for their survival. There was some surprise at my response; I suppose they had expected me to vehemently oppose the idea.

For some, death is sudden and instant
(Copyright © 2005 by Wil C. Fry.)

Less than a year earlier, my favorite uncle had died from cancer after being in severe pain for months. I was not around him during that time; I heard about it second-hand from his daughter (my cousin), with whom I regularly exchanged letters in those days. Perhaps my compassion for him had affected my thinking on the subject. Death and pain were not regular experiences for me by that point in life; I was lucky to have only known a few people who had died, and I had never been around any of them during their final days of suffering.

Later, I remember debating the subject with friends at Bible college. Often I was the only one who took the “it should be an option” side. The best my opponents could come up with is “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Heb. 9:27) or “thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13), neither of which was relevant. The first just means everyone will die (and people assume it means that God has determined when people will die); the latter should have been translated as “murder” rather than “kill”, since many types of killing are clearly approved in the Bible.

The argument would always move away from euthanasia to suicide.

Here’s the biblical perspective: the Bible mentions seven people who killed themselves — Abimelech, Saul, Saul’s armor-bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri, Judas, and Samson. It also mentions one person who was ready to kill himself but was stopped by Paul (Acts 16:27-28). In each of those cases, the Bible has the opportunity to condemn their actions, but it never does. (There is no approval either.)

◊ Define The Terms

Let’s not conflate suicide with euthanasia; they are not the same thing. And neither is narrow enough to apply to the current “dying with dignity” movement.

The word suicide is broad; it refers to any instance of ending one’s own life, but it generally assumes a person would have lived had he not ended his own life.

Euthanasia is usually defined as “mercy killing”. Example: “I took my dying dog to the vet to have him euthanized.” It can also apply to a broader range of “doctor-assisted suicide”.

The “dying with dignity” movement assumes a person’s death is imminent and that the intervening time will be painful — it does not apply to — nor even consider — healthy people with many expected years. Thus it is nearly a connotative opposite of suicide.

This is an actual slippery slope
(Copyright © 2013 by Wil C. Fry.)

◊ Points Of Opposition

Opposition comes from several positions, not the least of which is religion, which I mentioned above. Many people of several religions hold that God and God alone should determine the time/date of a person’s death, and that suicide subverts God’s will in the matter. I would understand this viewpoint better if the same people weren’t so often supporters of war and the death penalty (they are), and if any of their scriptures actually said it was a bad idea (they don’t). And remember, we’re not talking about people choosing their own death; we’re talking about people whom death has already chosen.

The medical community has traditionally been opposed also. The American Medical Association has said: “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer”. The California Medical Association has a paper on the subject, but wants $12 to let you know what it says. The CMA was cited in this story as saying “helping patients die conflicts with doctors’ commitment to do no harm.” Neither of these makes sense in the context of a patient who certainly will die — past the point of “healing” — and who is certain to suffer not only immense pain but often indignities most of us would rather not discuss. Wherein lies the greater harm, O physician — prolonging the suffering of a dying patient and forcing them to lie in their own filth until someone shows up with a washcloth? Or helping that person find a painless, peaceful solution?

Fortunately, a growing number of doctors are coming around on this idea.

There is also the “slippery slope” crowd that rears its ugly head any time someone wants the right to do something. “It’s a slippery slope”, they’ll say. “Next, we’ll allow much worse things!” The problem with the slippery slope idea is that it assumes a downhill path. You can’t use the slippery slope argument when we as a society are trying to make something better. Increasing fuel efficiency for automobiles isn’t part of a slippery slope. Outlawing child abuse isn’t part of a slippery slope. Because these things are better than not doing them. “Freeing slaves is a slippery slope! Someday, they’ll want to vote, and get jobs! Imagine the horror!”

Of course, “better” is a value judgment. Opponents of dying-with-dignity measures are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asserting it’s better to suffer immense and pointless pain, to lose control of your bodily functions, to lose the ability to communicate during your final days, and so on. This, in my view, is immoral.

So, it comes down to morality, how people define it, and whether people believe their own codes should be forced on everyone else — regardless of the harm it might cause.

◊ Oh, The Morality!

Except for a sadly large number of people, human morality can be boiled down to “do no harm” or “be kind” or, in Jesus’ case: “love your neighbor as yourself” or “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

The libertarian principle of “live and let live” applies here too — as long as others aren’t causing harm, let them do their thing, even if it’s different from your thing.

But if your moral code is none of these, if it’s a backward kind of moral code that insists on prolonging suffering and insists others should be forced by law to undergo prolonged suffering, then you are part of the problem, not only in with end-of-life issues, but in many other areas.

It’s one thing to be stoic and decide that you will live through the indignities that often accompany the end of life. It’s quite another thing to insist that everyone else has to do it too.

  1. You skipped right over the hard question; the question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with, the fundamental question of existence.

    Is there Purpose in suffering?

    (No, not a purpose or any-old-arbitrary purpose, but the deep-meaning capital letter, Purpose)

    If there is Purpose in suffering, then ‘death with dignity’ defies that Purpose. If there isn’t, then since I suffer fools every day, you’re condoning me offing a wide swath of the population.

    Now, I know that it’s a personal decision and I respect it as such. But if living to ease the suffering of others is selfless, then dying to prevent your own suffering is selfish.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I didn’t skip the question; I was brief about it — see the entry’s last paragraph. Reworded, it might say:

      “So, if you do believe in a Purpose for suffering in death, feel free to suffer when you’re dying. Do not feel free to force me or others to suffer in their final moments.”

      We’re not talking about forcing you to end your suffering, but about the choice for dying patients to end their own.

      There is no question that suffering/pain can serve a (lowercase p) purpose. Burn hand on stove, learn not to touch hot stove. And suffering can teach empathy — I know what you feel in sickness because I have been sick. On this, everyone agrees.

      But suffering as you die is a different animal. Does it have a (uppercase P) Purpose? Of course not. But you are free to pretend it does, and free to suffer for that belief.

      “If there isn’t [Purpose in suffering], then since I suffer fools every day, you’re condoning me offing a wide swath of the population.”

      Not related to suffering in death.

      “But if living to ease the suffering of others is selfless, then dying to prevent your own suffering is selfish.”

      From the entry above: “we’re not talking about people choosing their own death; we’re talking about people whom death has already chosen.”

      You’re talking about someone who has a choice between living in pain or killing themselves, which isn’t the same thing as a person who will certainly die within days or weeks — whose only choice is whether to suffer more intensely as they die.

  2. “suffering as you die” We are all dying and suffering until we are dead, only to different degrees.
    “people whom death has already chosen” Has there ever existed a person that death has not chosen?
    “a person…whose only choice…” Is their suffering the only connection to life? Or are they choosing to allow their suffering to define them?

    In no uncertain terms, I am in agreement with your stance. But I submit again that “death with dignity”, suicide, euthanasia, death at one’s own hand by any name, is the ultimate selfish act.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “We are all dying…”

      Sure. Once you’ve been conceived, it is then guaranteed you will die. Regardless of health, class, race, behavior, etc., the mortality rate is 100%. This is, however, a semantic trick.

      Take myself as an example. I will die. There is no question of that. But it could be fifty years from now, or thirty years from now, or 10 years from now. There is a chance, some slight probability, that I will die today or tomorrow. This is not the same as knowing death is imminent. Further, if I die today or tomorrow, it will be without prolonged suffering, because I am not currently suffering. “Death with dignity” or euthanasia could not possibly apply to me, because I am not aware of imminent death by disease or bodily malfunction of any kind.

      If on the off-chance I die today, tomorrow, next week, or even next month, it would be relatively sudden — say, by car accident, homicide, snakebite, tornado, meteor strike, etc. It’s possible I wouldn’t die instantly, but that I would languish for some hours, maybe even a day or two, from mortal wounds. Clearly, none of this is what I’m talking about.

      “But I submit again that ‘death with dignity’, suicide, euthanasia, death at one’s own hand by any name, is the ultimate selfish act.”

      I’m not asserting that it’s selfless to end one’s own suffering; I’ll stipulate that it’s selfish (but not inherently immoral). I’m asserting that it’s immoral to prohibit someone else from ending their own when it’s known that death is imminent.

  3. The fundamental pillar on which the Right stands in opposition to Death with Dignity is common to most of their arguments: that they have the right to decide how others should behave.

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