Norman H. Burton, O.D. (1908-1989) graduated the Columbia University School of Optometry, New York City, in 1932. During his 20s and while in the service during the Second World War he was a cigarette smoker. In 1986 he was diagnosed with cancer of the lung which soon spread throughout his body, including the vertebral column, producing intractable pain not even relieved by an implanted intrathecal morphine pump. In his agony he begged his son, a physician, to end his life. His son, as a dedicated physician, could not bring himself to perform this act. There were no other means by which this could be accomplished. Dr. Burton suffered terribly during his last two years of life.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), suffered from a number of infirmities throughout his life. Prior to his death at age 84 he penned a letter to George Washington in which he indicated that he had been in “excruciating pain over the last few years.” Despite this disability Franklin remained professionally active and clearly had no wish to end his existence.
It is not unreasonable for a rational person to end their terminal suffering and depart from life with dignity. That our present culture does not allow this is a dishonor to our supposedly civilized society. There remains much controversy regarding this issue. Common sense, however, should dictate the following:
Sane and rational persons suffering with terminal illness should be allowed an opportunity to depart their life with dignity if this is their desire.
Physicians, who are committed to preserving and maintaining life, should have no direct hand in causing harm or death to a patient, ever.
It is possible to end a person’s life in a humane manner. The Editor recalls a anesthesiologist who committed suicide by simply placing, and then opening, a intravenous drip connected to a bag of saline containing a lethal dose of sodium pentothal. She lapsed into a peaceful sleep and expired.
Every medical institution has IRB (Institutional Research Review Board) committees which function to review research proposals involving human subjects. The purpose of these groups is to assure informed consent and the safety of the participants. These groups, (or others like them) which consist of medical and lay persons, could readily also serve to determine the legitimacy of an individual’s desire to depart with dignity.
Every hospital has “I.V. teams” which routinely place and monitor intravenous systems. It does not require the services of a physician to start and open an I.V.
Why Hasn’t Death with Dignity Been Allowed?
Well, we probably started off on the wrong foot. Dr. Jack Kvorkian deserves credit for forcing many to pry open their minds on the subject of euthanasia but also censure for directly involving a physician in creating a “killing field.”
Progress in “death with dignity” has stalled because there are those who, on the basis of their personal beliefs, have barred the way. If September 11, 2001 hasn’t served mankind with a lesson about the folly of imposing one’s devotions on others the sudden death of many Americans will have occurred in vain. Self-determination doesn’t have much of a chance when barricades are created by those with differing faith-based beliefs.
True liberty is only possible when the world dedicates itself to the proposition that one group isn’t smarter than anyone else and that none have been “chosen” by a higher power to impose their standards on the others. When we reach this advance in thinking (the xylotyl stage) we will truly have then begun the true maturation of our species. The immediate result of this step forward will be a great deal less self-imposed death and destruction on planet earth.