The right to die in peace

By Greg Ellis

As the heavily fortified walls of the U.S. Republican theocracy are attacked by those overseeing Terry Schiavo, it is very difficult to examine such a volatile moral issue.

When only 36 per cent of Americans have living wills and over 15,000 are currently in persistent vegetative states it is surprising that cases such as Schiavo’s have not aggravated our perceived morality more frequently. If only Terry had resided in Oregon, the only U.S. state that has salted the slippery slope of euthanasia through The Death with Dignity Act. Nevertheless, lacking the capacity to form her own decisions, she would never have met its rigorous protocol to initiate such a morbid procedure.

No one seems to question the veracity of her husband’s sworn affidavit outlining her desire not to be kept alive in such a state. No one seems to care about what Terry would have wanted. After all, Terry was no longer a person, but a bargaining chip for a U.S. theocracy to flex the will of God over the fallibility of his sheep­–even sheep in white coats and clad with stethoscopes.

Without merely relying on religion as a counter-argument to euthanasia, opponents have relied on two arguments to oppose it: the erosion of life’s value via the slippery slope and euthanasia’s potential discrimination based on social class, disproportionately administered on destitutes and the uninsured. However, in Oregon, out of the 171 people who made use of the law, the typical applicant has tended to be white, well-educated and well insured.

No ratification of euthanasia into legislation would ever engender any suggestion of being liberal in its protocol. In Oregon the patient must have no more than six months to live, the request must be repeated three times, two physicians must sign off on the request, a psychological evaluation must take place to ensure capacity and the patient may change his or her mind at any time. Such a policy doesn’t suggest the decision should be treated lightly, nor used as a quick intervention for those presumed incurable. The religious right seem unconcerned with the potential after-effects of letting Terry Schiavo die. Instead they appear more concerned with the action itself, creating “Terry’s Law” and offering demagogic appeals in the house of their vehement opposition to letting her die.

Schiavo’s case brings up the important distinction between active euthanasia (killing through the administration of a lethal dose of opiates), which is assuredly wrong, and passive euthanasia (taking away the means that are keeping a person artificially alive). The religious right is selective. Aiding a patient in ending his or her life prematurely is playing God, while prolonging it through the use of medical technology is no problem at all. This disconnect is one physician-assisted suicide opponents have long left as self-evident, one that many of us would like more properly explained.

If the natural assumption is that one’s body and life are the most private and personal forms of property, one may accordingly assume that the issue of euthanasia would resonate most with neo-conservatives who consistently call for increases in property rights. Property and its rights have been historically more topically relevant issues to conservative think- ers than those to the left. Much as the Bush administration has conceded you could manage your social security funds better than them, they don’t dare manage your right to die.