Death with Dignity: the last great civil-rights crusade

Karen Ann Quinlan
Karen Ann Quinlan

My biggest disappointment in last month’s election has to do with the Death with Dignity proposal going down to defeat in my native Massachusetts. I was surprised, given the progressive politics of the Bay State. Early indications suggested it would win public approval easily.

The story behind its defeat is a familiar one featuring a pile on of reactionary interests, conservative and religious, who vehemently oppose gays, and free choice seemingly habitually.  I won’t  bother you with specific details of Question 2’s defeat, as Paula Span has touched all the bases in her informative NYT piece (December 6, 2012), except to note that it came down to, as it usually does, big bucks and, in Massachusetts, largely from out-of-state.

I speak for myself, but I find it galling when people attempt to impose their moral and/or religious views on others.  History is replete with the bloody violence of parochialism, and it continues as one of our primary challenges globally since 9/11. In America, the violence gets transposed to highly charged rhetoric such as “assisted suicide,” as if words possess truth density.

When it comes to wanting to die with dignity, we’re talking about an individual’s right to choose in its most fundamental sense as an exercise in personal sovereignty.  In violating that space we perpetrate suffering at another’s expense and, frankly, what’s moral about that?  We do better by our pets when we withhold compassion for our terminally ill loved ones.

I remember how my father died in the VA hospital in Chesea, strapped in his bed to subdue his thrashings. It went on for days.  Where lies the nobility in all of that?

I remember my brother after his surgery for brain cancer, no longer himself. He languished another six months, dying on his 47th birthday.

How would they have opted had they been granted a choice?  I don’t think I need to go there.

We forget that should luck and genes lengthen our days, that ultimately we may wish they hadn’t, given the many exits death provides,  In the distancing of our complacency, we can too easily forfeit our humanity.  But we needn’t wait for whatever our last years hold, since none of us knows his daily fate.

Forgotten in all this is the landmark case of 21-year old Karen Ann Quinlan (1954-1986), who lapsed into a vegetative state for several months following her alleged drug use at a party, leading to her parents’ request to remove her from the ventilator.  The hospital refused, culminating in a torturous litigation.  The same voices we heard in last fall’s discussion of the landmark proposal were heard then.  Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court would rule in her parents’ favor and Karen Ann was removed from her mechanical ventilator.  She would-live on for nearly ten years before her succumbing to pneumonia.

Today, we don’t blink an eye at “passive euthanasia,” including those who have vehemently opposed Death with Dignity legislation.  What’s more, we grant individual wish in such matters universally via that early question they always ask in pre-surgery registration:  Do you have a Living Will?  What provides the difference in the Death with Dignity Act is that I can exercise that right for myself, fully conscious, in the context of my final 6-months of life and exclude a hydra-head of suffering that profits no one and weighs down my loved ones with both grief and expense.

Only two states have passed such legislation, but I’m not discouraged.  As one embattled New Englander, Paul Revere, put it long ago concerning his resolve not to yield to his foes, “We have not yet begun to fight.”

Vermont, my favorite state, both for its green mountain beauty and fiercely independent people, is a coming battleground. I think we shall prevail.

I hear rumblings from all over this land as state legislators become more mindful and wrestle with progressive proposals. While we haven’t yet succeeded in states beyond Oregon and Washington, the groundswell is there for achieving a civil right long past its due.  The seed has been planted.

Someday our children will look back in disbelief at a society that once embraced slavery, denied women the vote, free choice and equal pay, railed against unions, bullied gays, upheld segregation and, lastly, denied dignity to the terminally I’ll.

What a wonderful day that will be!

Do well.  Be well,


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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