There's No Dignity in Our Death Culture

National Post Comment, 21 October 2003

There is no dignity in our death culture

Perhaps the culture of death my generation has unwittingly created will only come home to roost when, in our creaky 80s, we face the Futile Care Committee at our local hospital, to be told, well, it's simply too expensive to keep you alive any longer, buster. Inappropriate Care Protocols rule. Say your prayers, and your goodbyes, the lady with the "Aussie Exit Bag" is coming, next Tuesday at 11 o'clock. Death with Dignity. Good of the State. Here's the extension of the Therapeutic Grieving Committee. You can have whatever music you want. '70s? '80s? '60s? My, you are old. And by the way? We're feeling particularly compassionate this morning.

How likely is this? Pretty much inevitable. Thirty more years of federal Liberal health care mismanagement will make it necessary. The drugs for assisted suicide cost about $40. As Derek Humphrey, co- founder of the Hemlock Society, wrote, in his recent Freedom to Die, "the hastened demise of people with only a short time to live would free resources for others," an amount he predicts would run into the "hundreds of billions of dollars." That'll sure help with our ever- yawning debt.

It's unpleasant to think of, I know. And so what, right? We already see life and death through a utilitarian prism. In Canada, where only a few are willing to discuss our failing medical system, we have to be modern. We've spent our way into it.

This was all thrown into relief this week by our Senate about to allow experiments on human embryos, and the U.S. Senate's finally banning partial birth abortion. Parental notification will be next, promised Bill Frist, U.S. Senate leader. After that, murdering the mother and child in utero will be two murders, not one. Then, late last week, Jeb Bush overturned the forced removal of young Floridian Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, allowing her parents another shot at taking care of her. The ACLU hooted and hollered, but most people looked at Terri's wide-boy husband spouting platitudes on Larry King about Terri saying she wanted to die when she was watching a movie once, and thought, this guy wants to go off and play happy families with his two kids by his new girlfriend and forget all this nuisance of feeding tubes and visits. If her parents want her to live, let her live. If there's a chance, a tiny chance, that with rehab, she can eat by herself, let her be fed. When in doubt, choose life.

Schiavo's life could be richer than that. Scientists, like neuropsychologist, Joseph Giancino, believe that, within 10 years, researchers will be able to experiment with implanted electrodes that act like pacemakers for consciousness. By emitting regular pulses of electricity, they could keep the brain's networks active and synchronized. Terri Schiavo is a young woman, within 20 years, she could live at home, have a life. Who knows? If it's possible, even a tiny chance, science turning up one miracle after another, as it does, who would take that life away?

Well the community of bioethicists for one. This relatively new group of academics have taken it upon themselves to advise the good and the great on what life is and should be, and they are certainly behind any legislation having to do with the definition of death. Most famous among them is Princeton's Pete Singer -- so mainstream he wrote the essay on ethics for the Encyclopedia Britannica -- who argues that parents should have the right for a set period of time after each child's birth, whether to kill the child or not. "The wrongness of killing such beings [infants]," says Singer, "is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person."

What counts morally is not being "human" but being a "person," a status earned by possessing identifiable mental capabilities such as being self-aware or having the ability to engage in rational behaviour.

Most bioethicists agree that there are human beings who are not persons and many bioethicists believe that basing moral value and legal rights solely upon being human is capricious, religion-based and irrational. Who doesn't cut it? All embryos, people with Alzheimer's, serious cognitive disorders, and significant developmental incapacities. Needless to say, Not Dead Yet, the disability rights group that fights against legalized assisted suicide, believes that this theory is a dagger blade aimed at the heart of the disabled community.

Personhood theory is well entrenched in the medical establishment, particularly among those transplant professionals who want to redefine death to include a diagnosis of permanent coma or unconsciousness. The thousands of people in such states, at any one time, transplant professionals argue, could have non- essential items like corneas or a single kidney removed. The Pittsburgh Gazette reported last year that "obitiatry," defined by Dr. Kervorkian as experimentation on assisted suicide victims, has already been used on catastrophically ill or injured people with experimental cancer drugs. Last year, in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, the HMO, Kaiser/Permanente solicited their doctors for physicians willing to kill patients, that their own physicians refused to kill.

You have to be thinking about money now. Medical and bioethics journals have reported in recent years that futile care protocols have been adopted quietly by hospitals all over the world. Doctors can decide that given finite resources, life-sustaining treatments, even low-tech antibiotics, can be withdrawn.

And money is where the culture of death really comes home to roost. As Wesley J. Smith author of Forced Exit, points out, legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia will take place in the "context of a harsher real world of abuse and neglect of the elderly, family dysfunction, relatives demanding to inherit property or collect fat insurance policies and subtle pressure on the ill, disabled or elderly to cease being a burden." 

You can choose to die with "dignity." At the price of thousands who will be forced into it.