My Dinner With Death

Originally published September 1999

What’s wrong with assisted suicide?” my friends asked. “If people want to die, who are we to stop them?”

Over an appetizer, I reminded one of how quickly he had intervened when his daughter expressed suicidal desires.

“She was a teenager. She didn’t know what she wanted.”

“What makes you so sure that most people who commit suicide know what they want?”

“Look,” he said, “I know I don’t want to die in a hospital filled with tubes and needles and on a machine. I know I don’t want to die in a nursing home. I know I don’t what to die in a lot of pain.”

“Who does? Is killing them the best solution?”

“So you’re against assisted suicide.”

“It scares me,” I said. “I’m not sure it’s a genie we can put back in the bottle. And I think there are better ways to put people out of their misery than by killing them. It sounds like one of those wacko epitaphs from Vietnam — ‘We had to destroy the village to liberate it.’”

“Well, what’s your answer?” they all asked.

“Making it easier for people to off themselves implies that terminal illness or permanent disability are just inconveniences, something to be avoided or eliminated or aborted. What’s to stop us from eliminating defective humans? The Nazis did it.”

“The Hemlock Society wearing swastikas? Government death squads? HMOs using Jonestown cocktails for cost containment? Did you forget your anti-paranoia medication?”

They were crowing by the time the main course arrived, and I tried again.

“Assisted suicide without universal health care coverage is ludicrous. Do our choices have to be between death or pain, death or the nursing home, death or life support? Can’t we address the real-life problems instead of just pulling the plug?”

“You’re talking about a personal world that doesn’t exist,” one said. “We’re saying that when quality of life is gone, we should have the right to say ‘enough.’”

“How do you know what’s enough? I didn’t know for a couple of years after my injury what my quality of life could be. All I thought paralysis meant was burdensome and expensive and something I didn’t want. I still don’t want paralysis, but my quality of life’s not bad.”

They turned cynical: “You mean people should have to live in pain or isolation or without their dignity for years just to make sure they won’t — perhaps — come to like it? You sound like the Nazi now.”

“But it’s more complicated than that. What if your care is bankrupting your family, what if your pain isn’t treated or prescription drugs are too expensive or going to a Medicaid nursing home is too scary? What if you’ll be forced to live way below the poverty level? Then assisted suicide might look pretty good. Assisted suicide may be a real choice if you approach the end of life in a rational state of mind and you’re supported by a loving family with adequate finances. How many of us does that describe? It shouldn’t be a financial decision or a pain decision or a living-situation decision. It should be a quality-of-life decision. Death shouldn’t be the only option.”

My friends remained unconvinced. Time for coffee and dessert.

“Are you saying that life under any circumstances is preferable to dying? You can’t imagine reaching a point where life’s just too tough?”

Snag.

“I wish I could,” I said. “I’m incredibly ambivalent and fearful about death. I’m paranoid enough to think some people look at me and think, ‘Take him out, he’s too expensive,’ but I don’t know if I’m tough enough to look the Reaper in the eye and say ‘Bring it on.’ I’m not real comfy in bed with Jack [Kevorkian], but the Right to Lifers and Not Dead Yet people make me sort of nervous, too. I’ve watched friends die some pretty ugly deaths. I  can think of situations where I’d probably go for the full Kevorkian. Without legalized assisted suicide, I won’t have to make the decision.”

Imagine my surprise when closing time arrived and nothing had been resolved and all our opinions remained unchanged.


On Assisted Suicide

Satisfactory safeguards cannot be established in the context of society’s current health-care system and anti-disability bias.”
— Diane Coleman

“You do not need to be pro-abortion to support the rights to of a woman to determine what happens to her own body. Nor do you need to be in favor of suicide to support physician-assisted suicide. You simply must realize these are personal issues.”
— Larry Kohout

“Activists in the disability community have for years complained that doctors have too much power over their lives. Why then would we consider giving additional life-and-death power to physicians?”
— Julie Madorsky, M.D.

“To believe that economic demands will force the medical profession to start murdering us in our beds by withholding life-saving medications and medical help is paranoia of the highest order.”
— Lorenzo Milam

“I worry that others may be self-righteous and do what is best for others and not for me. I don’t believe anyone has the right to play God with my life.”
— Thomas Matola

“I will protest anyone being forced to ‘choose’ suicide; that is murder. But to forbid someone who wishes to die a physician or anyone else to assist is no choice at all.”
— Sue Pendleton

“Death with dignity is an oxymoron.”
— Carlos Amantea

On Jack Kevorkian:
“He seemed to take such glee in knocking people off. I thought that all many of his patients needed was some Prozac and therapy.”
— Robert Samuels

“Most of those he killed were not terminal. Many had MS, which I have lived with for years, and some were less symptomatic than I am.”
— Laura R. Mitchell

“Kervorkian did not stalk disabled people and kill them in alleys. Every individual he assisted came looking for him.”
— Chris Steinberg

“He is the wrong guy doing the right work.”
— Daniel Barnes

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