|column for The American Catholic
submitted Nov. 18, 2003
Should Doctors Help You Die?
by William Cleary
Here in Vermont we are trying to decide about following the state of Oregon and legitimizing physician assisted suicide – when you have less than six months to live, have consulted two doctors, and have twice made a written request for medicinal assistance.
I personally lean toward approval. I feel that when I have had enough of this rich and challenging human life, I would like a way to bring it to an end – with dignity and grace, in consultation with those I love, and in communication with God. I suspect my method will be to simply cease eating and drinking. That should trouble no one, and avoid all suggestion of blame or of resorting to some desperate and undignified act done in isolation.
We should think of death, I believe, as natural, as normal an experience as is birth, and as expected as graduation or retirement. It must not be unthinkable. We have to think about it. Your vital functions finally come to an end, you become unconscious, your breathing slows and then stops, your heartbeat ends. You are alive no more. "You" disappear, regretfully leaving behind those who love you. You also leave behind – as other animals do – the organic matter that once was your body but is that no more. It is meant now to sweeten the earth and be useful to new life. "Green burial" appeals to me, in a woods or farmland – where you can be transformed into new life.
Does the person you came to be continue to exist in some other realm or place? Most human cultures answer yes: or they'd "like to think so." It is no less improbable, they argue, than that you came to human life in the first place. It makes logical sense too: in the physical world energy and matter never are destroyed, but only change. Even science is not familiar with extinction, only with transformation.
But we may confidently leave all this to God and the meaningful world God has given us. We are in good hands. Jesus spoke of an "eternal life" awaiting us, of a communion of saints in a world of joy, forgiveness and justice at last. It doesn't sound like something to fear.
Should physicians assist? They should be allowed to, I believe, in consultation with patient and family, and the laws allowing it can adequately protect against abuse. Our general confidence in the medical profession should overrule our hesitations, and can be affirmatively added to our respect for an individual's natural freedom and sovereignty over their life. No one should have to be miserable and in pain, either physical or mental, if it is avoidable. To do so would seem to stand against the common sense of humankind throughout history – though some, often for good reasons, see it otherwise.
To take the path out of pain and misery – even if that path is death – seems to me natural and even noble. With trust in God and confidence in one's self, one might even welcome death. "Into your hands I commend my spirit," said the prophetic Jesus as he felt himself dying, using words from a familiar Psalm of David. We can hand ourselves over in the same way – with a little help from our friends, and possibly from the doctor.
Some years ago, when a beloved friend died, I wrote words and music for a hymn for the memorial service. Here – for what they are worth – are the words I put together: an old-fashioned rhyming verse called "Into Your Hands." I have asked my sons to sing it at my funeral.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, into your hands,
Into your hands I will send my spirit, into your hands,
Safe will I be, sheltered with thee, safe in your perfect care,
Every desire, every deep dream, hopes for a homeland there!
Into your life I commend my spirit, God of my heart,
I turn my face to the promised City, ready to start,
All my past ways your graciousness show,
Surely ahead your presence I'll know,
Into your hands, into your life, I go.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, having no fear,
Unto the end I can trust your spirit, your strength is near,
Every clear day, every dark night, I knew your love was there,
So in this dark shadow of death, I sing a trustful prayer.
Into your life I commend my spirit, so let it be,
Out of my death you will take my spirit, welcoming me,
Life was a gift, a season to grow,
This is the hour of harvesting, so
Into your hands, into your life, I go. #
(William Cleary resides at www.clearyworks.com where all his books and music are available.)