Patrick Henry Revisited: Give Me Liberty AND Give Me Death

I dislike that we have become a starkly divided nation but understand the philosophical underpinnings of many disputed issues. I can’t understand how one mind can believe government intrusion into the personal decisions of citizens is an intolerable restraint on liberty (the conservative credo), yet insist government deny women free choice in their reproductive decisions, gays the right to marry, and suffering patients the right to die. We are a nation of secular laws designed to protect our rights from infringement by others; lawmakers have no authority to criminalize activities simply because they offend religious beliefs. The purest example of faith-based lawmaking is the denial of the right to die, a right I’ve fixated on lately for a number of reasons.

1. As a humanist, I seek to minimize human suffering and believe religion’s approach to modern medicine is inhumane, as well as logically inconsistent. To me, it seems difficult to sustain the argument that medicine cannot be applied to hasten death but can be applied to prolong life. Either God’s plan is sacrosanct or we can use available tools to alter end-of-natural-life timing. While Christian Scientists may be a logically consistent minority (many shun medicine altogether), it seems more likely a rational and loving God would approve humanity’s use of medicine to reduce suffering, whether by curing ills, managing pain, or hastening an imminent and inevitable death.

2.  As a lawyer, faith-based lawmaking infuriates me. Even if we accept the rationality of the Church’s objection to euthanasia, which guides the consciences of many citizens, we are still governed by the Constitution, not the Vatican. Freedom of religion not only guarantees us the right to practice our choice of faith but also freedom from others, even the majority, imposing their faith upon the rest of us. Terminal patients who wish to die with dignity should be permitted to exercise their free will, even if it offends the conscience of others.

3. As a fiscal realist, I see a zero-pain fix to a vexing budget dilemma. As advances in medicine expand the scope of desperate measures available to extend life, the cost of end-of-life care threatens to overwhelm families and government programs–about 30% of all Medicare expenditures are incurred in the final year of life. We cannot afford unlimited medical care for everyone—some rationing is inevitable—but we can minimize rationing by providing a dignified, painless death for those who want to voluntarily abandon expensive treatment options and long-term care.

4. As an observant citizen and amateur philosopher, I believe our focus on economic advancement over the past several decades has led to a diminished role for the elderly and lower quality of life for all. Increased mobility has created distance between extended families, and Social Security and Medicare have institutionalized senior care. My suspense novel, King of Paine, was inspired, in part, by misplaced priorities of the Baby Boomer generation, as animated by this passionately delivered quote from one of my characters, a reclusive doctor who has taken these serious matters into her own hands:

“It’s a breakdown in society. When we think only in terms of dollars and cents, we fail to place value on intangibles you can’t buy. Parents work a lifetime to build and support a family, but where are the children in their twilight years? Money can provide food and medicine, but the end of life shouldn’t be about sustaining a suffering old machine! The end should be a reward for a life worth living. We should be surrounded by our loved ones. We should have a peaceful place to die with dignity and joy and maybe even a little poetry.”

Like Dr. Simone Perlow, I yearn for a social order that improves our elders’ quality of life by encouraging family care while practical–centering our lives around family and tradition—but allowing for a graceful exit when only suffering remains.

5. As a recently diagnosed Parkinson’s patient, I want to fill my life with joy and purpose until I can’t. Suicide is an option, in due time (my symptoms are mild), but a friend recently observed that the real danger is waiting too long, until the mind or body is no longer capable of such a benevolent act. If it were legal, my living will would direct my family and doctors to take affirmative steps to end my life (a) at my direction if I can no longer care for myself or (b) per my prior instructions if I can no longer communicate rationally. As the law stands now, I fear someone else’s God will ultimately force me to live as an undignified shell of my former self, a burden on my family and country.

Give me liberty! Give me the right to die when I choose.

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