I had been putting off writing on this topic. My mother’s sister has begun her own death walk, and while I am a firm supporter of and believer in the right to die, I am only just starting to sort through all of my feelings about facing death with such courage and grace. But the Terri Schiavo case has forced the issue of quality of life vs. life at all costs into the public spotlight, so perhaps it is now time to comment.
In the case of my aunt, to whom only clinical trials are available as possible treatment for her aggressive melanoma, she is fully lucid and cognizant and so is able to make her own choices about her remaining days. Rather than compromising her current health and filling her life with various medical appointments and procedures, she has chosen instead to allow nature to take its course. She has entered a hospice program and is planning on dying at home, surrounded by her family. Between now and then, she is doing what she wants with herself and her time.
I don’t expect her to opt for euthanasia, but I am comforted to know that physician-assisted suicide is at least available to her here in Oregon.
My personal experience with euthanasia involves my cat’s passing in November 2002. I had known and loved this kitty since before he was born. He was the son of the family cat, and while still in utero the kittens were quite active, making their young mother very uncomfortable. So, she would lie down on her side, and I would stroke the little kitten heads through her skin, to calm them down so she could get some rest. When the kittens were born, Grit decided that he was my kitty. I was fourteen years old when he was born, and more than eighteen years later, he gave me the gift of allowing me to help him die.
That was two-and-a-half years ago, and I still easily become emotional about it. But even moments after his passing — by injection from a vet — I was so grateful that this option was available to him in his aged and pained state, and I knew that there might come a time in my life when I would want such an option for myself.
And so I come to the matter of Terri Schiavo. I am deeply troubled by the direction this case is taking, and by the drawn-out duration of this family struggle.
I don’t believe that the government should dictate who is allowed to die, and who must be forcibly kept alive. Certainly, this struggle has its roots in the conflict between the husband and the Terri’s parents; I wish there were some quieter and more peaceful way for this to be resolved.
The broader issue, of course, is death with dignity vs. life at all costs. There is a point when life becomes a miserable hardship and death offers true release. It’s difficult to draw a definitive line across the board as to where quality of life deteriorates enough to allow euthanasia as a legal option, which is why (I believe) the choice should be left up to the individuals and families rather than being dictated by law.
Unfortunately, even with Terri’s feeding tube removed, there will be no dignity in her death, as she will simply starve and wither away. There is no merciful, lethal shot available to her that would bring her suffering to a quick end. We’re living in a society in which our pets are allowed to die more gracefully than are we.