Should we be allowed to choose when we die?
This is not a new question. Oregon has faced it for years. The Death With Dignity Act, passed in 1997, allows terminally ill patients to end their lives by self-administering a lethal dose of medication. It remains an incredibly controversial issue, and chances are it won’t soon be resolved. A recent case brought up some of the age-old questions again. Who gets to decide when life should end? Are we ever in a good enough place to make that decision for ourselves? Should it be solely ours to make?
Recently an Indiana hunter named Timothy E. Bowers fell 16 feet from a tree, suffered severe spinal injuries and was paralyzed. The next day, he chose to be taken off life support and died that evening. His wife was quoted in the Indianapolis Star saying that “the last thing he wanted was to be in a wheelchair…he would never be able to give hugs, to hold his baby…Even if he decided the other thing, the quality of life would’ve been very poor.”
Now, suppose he was an 80-year-old with liver cancer. We might just say, well, it’s kinder to let him go. He would be the acceptable case, right? It would seem reasonable.
But he wasn’t. He was an otherwise-healthy 32-year-old, married just three months earlier, and his wife was expecting a baby. Those kinds of people are not supposed to die, nor do they want to die. They have more life ahead of them than behind. His decision is a lot more uncomfortable.
The accident happened on Saturday, and by Sunday he was dead. In that small amount of time, he decided he couldn’t live with the future he was being offered. But the future he refused was not only a wheelchair; it was his first child. His wife. Can you really make a decision that will leave a woman a widow and a child fatherless in less than 24 hours?
He had said previously that he wouldn’t want to live in a wheelchair and that his decision was far easier for his family.
You look at men like Stephen Hawking and the millions of other physically challenged people around the world who live extraordinary and fulfilling lives, and you wonder what they might say to the suggestion that his “quality of life would’ve been very poor.” What does that even mean? Who decides what quality of life is?
Furthermore, according to the Paralysis Resource Center, people who find out they’re going to be paralyzed or physically handicapped for the rest of their lives are two to three times more likely to be depressed than others. The idea that your entire life has changed overnight has to be nearly impossible to process. Is it really possible to make a decision as important as ending your life while in this frame of mind? It’s hard to believe that someone could be considered mentally competent at such a time.
The initial desire to die could be replaced with the will to live when the patient recognizes their reality is worth living for. What if Bowers had taken more time? What if he had spent weeks and months processing, rather than just hours? Might he have made a different decision? Of course, the mighty “what if” gets us nowhere, but I can’t help but think that most of us make really bad decisions under duress or extreme shock, and we’re generally glad when someone was there to keep us from messing up too royally. That Bowers took only hours to decide that he wanted to die seems crazy. I’m not saying he would have made a different decision after a month or two, but shouldn’t he have given himself that chance?
His paralysis may not have been as serious as initially thought. He may have been able to hold his child. There may have been any number of changes, and if not, perhaps he would have had a beautiful and fulfilling life regardless. His quality of life may have looked very different.
I can’t help but think that there needs to be more safeguards in place to protect us against ourselves. Again, I’m not saying Bowers would have changed his mind, but I cannot believe that he had the presence of mind to make a life and death decision hours after he’d experienced the worst trauma of his life.
We may never have the answers to the questions of what quality of life is or who should decide who lives or dies, but we can ensure that people have adequate and reasonable time to think, process and receive advice about such huge questions.
A day is not enough. It just isn’t. Everyone’s life is worth more than that.