Why do most people want to live so long?
I understand, as Aristotle said, that the first principle of life is to live — whether you are a germ, a plant or a human being. However, being a rational person who has led a long fruitful life, I would like to end this life gracefully.
We’re all going to die — or as gentle people like to say these days, “to pass” — so why not have some control over it as we’ve liked to control our living, especially should we develop a terminal illness giving us six months or less left?
“It’s a Wonderful World,” as Louie Armstrong sang so well. “Live abundantly,” Jesus advised, promising to help. However, there comes a time when “the end is near.” This life can become a “valley of tears,” as a prominent prayer puts it. For some, it comes with old age, usually after 80. For others, it comes with an illness such as cancer or heart disease. But for all, death will come. I’d like to have a say in how all this ends.
That medical advancements have extended our lives so long is a mixed blessing. Quality of life does not extend as far. More and more people live with pain, limited movement, and stunted intellectual and emotional fulfillment. It’s just going to get worse as advances continue. Is endless extension good for us as individuals or society? I, carefully, say no.
Today, in six U.S. states and the District of Columbia, the government allows people to have some say in how they end their lives. A number of European countries, along with Canada and other nations, have legal, medically assisted options for people. In the early Greek democracies, you could even buy hemlock in the everyday marketplace.
The Minnesota Legislature has had bills introduced on this issue, but so far none has advanced. Yet as ever more people live longer in pain, running up ever more expenses for families, for Medicare and for Medicaid, most if not all states will follow Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana and the District of Columbia. The large majority of Americans (68 percent in two independent polls, Gallup and Life Way Research in 2015 and 2016) favor medical assistance at the end of life.
The late physicist Stephen Hawking said, “To keep someone alive against their will is the ultimate indignity.” But he also said, “I’m in no hurry to die. I still have work to do.”
The cartoon Pearls before Swine wisely said that when we cannot help each other or laugh along the way, it’s time to go.
For me, now that I’m 81 and in my “bonus years,” I hope that when the time comes that I cannot work, or help others, or laugh along the way, I will have the courage to take any medically assisted option the state offers to end my life expeditiously and with as little pain all around as possible.
The Catholic Church calls St. Joseph the “patron saint of the happy death.” I think religions and secular authorities should teach us how to “pass” rather than prolong the last months of our time here on Earth. Both the individual and society would have less suffering, and we’d have more resources to invest in the young who have full lives ahead of them.
There are essentially two options before us — one is to convey the idea that it’s OK to allow yourself to die by not eating and drinking. The other is to intervene with medical assistance.
I believe we should save ourselves a lot of time and debate with a compromise. None other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has said he wants to die in his own bed, by refusing nourishment and water, but stopping short of lethal medical aid. I believe Minnesota should embrace that idea of a “happy death” and share it with the remaining 43 states.
Joe Selvaggio lives in Minneapolis.