In my own write: Right to die

Two British men are petitioning the Court of Appeal, seeking protection from prosecution for people who could help them “end it all.”

By
May 21, 2013 21:48
Paul Lamb

Paul Lamb petitioning assisted suicide 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

If I could in any way help to change this law [against assisted suicide], it would let me die a proud man, a very proud man – Briton Paul Lamb, left almost totally paralyzed after a car accident

If they had let me die, I would have missed out on the best, most beautiful years of my life – Israeli ALS sufferer Rachamim Melamed-Cohen, educator, author and artist

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I found my emotions tugged this way and that by the “right to die” debate, which resurfaces at different times and in different places as victims of incurable conditions take their plight to the courts in an attempt to decriminalize assisted suicide.

What engaged my interest was reading about the high profile case of two British men who are currently petitioning the Court of Appeal, seeking protection from prosecution for people who could help them “end it all.”

Paul Lamb, 57, rendered immobile except for limited movement in one hand after a car accident 23 years ago, lives on morphine and needs round-the-clock care. “Martin,” 48, cannot speak or move after a stroke four years ago and communicates via movements of the head and eyes.

Lamb has been allowed to take up the legal battle where fellow Briton  left off. Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome, died last year after refusing food and medication following a court’s dismissal of both his and Martin’s cases.

It was hard not to be affected by hearing Lamb talk to the BBC about his life as it is today, and his wish to be released from it legally at a time of his own choosing, when he felt he could no longer “hang on.” He speaks simply and with a quiet dignity, and one can imagine him as the man he was before his accident – pleasant, modest, unassuming, perhaps enjoying a pint in his local pub after a day’s work.

“The pain is horrendous... I stay in this room... no desire to go out most of the time... my will’s gone, I think I’m worn down, worn out... I badly would like to... have that choice, as and when I choose... to call it a day.... [It] would give me massive peace of mind....

“If I could in any way help to change this law, which is cruel, it would let me die a proud man, a very proud man.”

IN ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – nerve cells (neurons) waste away or die, and can no longer send messages to muscles. The condition slowly gets worse, eventually causing complete paralysis.

“If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” asked Canadian ALS victim Sue Rodriguez memorably in a video statement played to members of parliament more than two decades ago.

Rodriguez’s struggle to legalize assisted suicide galvanized public debate, but she lost her battle to change Canadian law. In 1994, she committed suicide with the help of an anonymous doctor.

Last month, Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old Winnipeg woman suffering from multiple systems atrophy, wrote to federal politicians petitioning for a change in the law regarding assisted suicide. Reports said she subsequently died with the aid of a physician at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, one of the places where some forms of euthanasia or assisted suicide are legal in certain cases.

ON A whim, I typed “own your life” into Google and came up with as many as 28,000 hits, in line with the modern trend toward self-help with the goal of maximum self-realization.

The sites I looked at shared a basic message: We need to take responsibility for our lives and live them in as productive and fulfilling a way as possible.

All well and good. But suppose our bodies betray us and life becomes an ongoing burden that feels too heavy to bear. Does ownership of our lives then extend to the right to end them? Jewish law says no, categorically. It regards human life as sacred and God-given, its value “infinite and beyond measure” in the words of former UK chief rabbi, the late Lord Jakobovitz.

Halacha is specific about what doctors may or may not do in the case of terminally ill patients who are dying: They cannot withhold food, water or oxygen – the withdrawal of which may be tantamount to murder or suicide – but they need not artificially prolong life where the patient has previously stated that he or she declines this. In other words, doctors are not required to make dying last longer than it naturally would.

Which may be comforting, but is of no immediate practical help to those living for years with excruciating, incurable illness.

AGAINST THE bleakness of this picture, the extraordinarily productive life of Israeli ALS sufferer Dr. Rachamim Melamed-Cohen, diagnosed with the disease in 1994 at age 57, is a testament to the human spirit, and to the power of faith.

The author of 10 books on education, religious faith and poetry – eight of them written during his illness – Melamed-Cohen is also an accomplished artist, using his eyes alone to activate a special computer program allowing him free use of Photoshop.

“I feel at times that God has allowed me to live in order to show the world that even in such a condition one can continue to be creative and contribute to society,” he told an interviewer. “The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the Creator.”

Rushed to the hospital after his breathing failed, he indicated that no extraordinary measures such as connecting him to a respirator be taken.

“It was my good fortune that I was hooked up, anyway,” he said. “I am happy that they didn’t listen to me. I would have missed out on the best, most beautiful years of my life.

“Before, I didn’t believe that I have such inner strength. I learned that every human being has sparks that he can transform into a burning flame.”

READING CASES and following comments on the topic of assisted suicide, one comes across odd word coinages such as “mercying” the incurably ill, and chilling phrases such as “the better and cheaper treatment of death.”

“What is mercy-killing?” Melamed-Cohen asks. “For whom is the mercy? Is it for the person with an illness? Or is it for the family, so that they should not have to suffer? For the medical establishment, to reduce expenditures? For the insurance companies?” To Melamed-Cohen, mercy means helping others to live, with dignity. “I have been fighting with senior medical officials and journalists who advocate euthanasia. I am trying to be a mouthpiece for all those people who want to go on living, but are subjected to tremendous pressure by an ‘enlightened society.’” Indeed, one of the concerns voiced by medical professionals and others should assisted suicide be decriminalized is that people with incurable illnesses, especially those who are older, will succumb to real or perceived societal pressure to “cease being a burden.”

IN A thought-provoking Guardian article called “’Amour’: How can we embrace a film that is so clearly an advert for euthanasia?” Brandeis University’s Margaret Morganroth, author of Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, writes of Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning movie: “For a film in which a husband murders his wife, Amour has been shown a lot of love... Amour raises cultural risks in a western world that is already ageist, and in which stretched medical resources are meted out to older patients much less generously than to the young.

“Conventional wisdom, that we should avoid prolonging the final phase of our lives, needs to be reassessed in the era of longevity.”

Morganroth quotes ethical philosopher Felicia Nimue- Ackerman: “Many seriously ill people find the ‘morbid phase’ of their lives well worth prolonging.”

I recall a psychiatrist describing the sheer power, the elemental force of life, the “fierce will to keep fighting” even in people who one might surmise would not want to carry on.

A friend of mine described her beloved aunt in the northern part of Israel: “At 87, she is a Holocaust survivor, always succumbing to one more ailment, then another. Yet she declares, ‘I’m not willing to give up yet!’” One can only admire this resilient approach. Yet in entering the inexpressibly arduous and challenging world of the incurably ill – if only in thought and imagination – it seems to me that our response to any one individual or group cannot in any way be a judgmental one. It cannot but be an attitude of respect, even awe – and a grateful recognition that “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”


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