A New York Times Piece Makes Us Wonder: Should We Have the "Right to Die?"
A terrible accident leaves an end-of-life bioethicist wrestling with the rights people should have to end their own lives
A recent New York Time Magazine piece profiled Margaret Battin, an international leader in end-of-life bioethics, and her husband, Brooke Hopkins, an English professor at the University of Utah, to find out who – if anyone – has the right to decide when someone may die.
Battin has written extensively about the right to a “good” death by an individual’s own hand for the terminally ill and those whose lives are intolerable because of chronic illness, serious injury, or extreme old age. But in 2008, all of her ideas were met with reality: Hopkins was in a terrible bicycle accident that left him with quadriplegia, paralyzed from the shoulders down, and dependent on life-support technology. In order to breathe, he requires a ventilator and a diaphragmatic pacer. He also receives his nutrition through a feeding tube.
Hopkins’ living will specifies that in the event of a grievous illness or injury like that of the bike accident, he has the right to decline technology (like the technology that he currently depends on) that serves “only to unnaturally prolong the moment of my death and to unnaturally postpone or prolong the dying process.” So far, he has not chosen that path – he has not yet chosen to die. Instead, he uses a $45,000 motorized wheelchair and spends nearly $250,000 a year on caregivers – 12 health care workers who come in shifts so, 24-hours a day, there’s always at least one on duty. On good days, he reads, goes for walks, and writes with the help of voice-recognition software. But on bad days his physical ailments – latent infections, low oxygen levels, drug interactions, and severe pain throughout his body – overwhelm him. On those days, he’s completely exhausted, depressed, and, often, confused. But so far, the dependence and physical travail that Hopkins has had to endure have not pushed him over the edge, to make the decision that he would prefer to die than carry on with his difficult life.
But perhaps some of the reason Hokins is still alive is because of his wife. After all, there have been instances when Battin has made the decision to take her husband to the hospital and continue treatment, even when he has plainly stated that he would like to die. Obviously, for Battin, the issues around end-of-life and dying have become terrifyingly real. She told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, “that someone you love – and love a lot, deeply – would be enmeshed in the same … very kind of choice you had been thinking about academically for so long is an extraordinary experience.” Battin says that the experience has not changed her opinion that people should have the right to end their lives, “especially since the very end makes the greatest amount of difference.”
As this extraordinary piece demonstrates, undoubtedly there are layers upon layers of complexity around an individual’s right to die. I’d love to hear your opinions. Will you share your thoughts in the comments section below?
Leah Yomtovian Roush is the Senior Manager of Strategic Development for Cleveland, Ohio-based eFuneral, a comprehensive and free online resource that enables those thinking about end-of-life to research, plan, and arrange a wide variety of funeral-related services. Leah is the editor of eFuneral's Online Resource Center, and she manages the company's marketing efforts and develops strategies for company growth. Leah also serves on the Boards of multiple non-profit organizations, helping them expand their reaches and increase their impacts.