Saturday, March 17, 2012

Additional musings on death

Peter Goodwin, a family physician and leading advocate of assisted suicide in Oregon, recently committed suicide. Goodwin had been instrumental in Oregon’s fight to legalize assisted suicide. He had a terminal illness, a prognosis of a rapidly diminishing quality of life during his projected six remaining months, and chose to die with dignity. (Stephen Miller, “Right-to-Die Advocate Ends His Life,” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2012,

What would you choose if you, God forbid, find yourself in a similar situation? Goodwin’s act was not rash or ill considered. No hope of an effective treatment existed; each day brought further deterioration to his condition and quality of life. Human actions prolong life in immoral ways, e.g., wrongly spending enormous sums to extend a comatose person’s “survival” for a day or a week.

Simplistically saying that only God determines when a person dies clearly does not mesh with contemporary reality. Similarly, humans can now create life, e.g., through in vitro fertilization.

For more thoughts on death, read Ethical Musings: Musings about death.

I support organ donation. I’ve prepared the necessary legal documents to authorize donation of my organs upon my death. The gift of organs can be a gift of life to another person. Goodwin’s choice of death and organ donation represents a net gain of life and healing.

However, I recently read a column by Dick Teresi, “What You Lose When You Sign That Donor Card” (Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2012) that raised some concerns. First, society would benefit from having a clear definition of death, a task easier said than done. Teresi’s column unhelpfully muddies the debate by vaguely referring to brain waves emanating from comatose individuals. He does not specify the type of brain waves; he ignores cases like that of Karen Quinlan, whom doctors declared brain dead in spite of some continuing brain activity, who was kept “alive” for years, and whose autopsy, when she was finally declared physically dead, showed significant, long-term brain deterioration.

Second, people should consult with knowledgeable medical experts when facing choices about prospects for reversing terminal diseases, selecting treatment protocols, opting to refuse treatment, exploring the advisability of assisted suicide, and deciding whether a person is brain dead. People should not depend upon religious leaders for answers to these questions. The ethical issue is living abundantly and promoting flourishing, a goal that is not always inimical with accepting death. Choosing to die with dignity may be the best way to end one’s life abundantly and with maximal flourishing.

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