Pocket Lawyer: Dignity of life

A few weeks ago, I lost a dear friend of mine. I knew she had some health challenges and was dealing with it but she sounded optimistic.

So when the news came that she had passed on it was a bit of a rude shock. She was in her 70s and one could say that she had a full life. After she passed on, some people focused on her treatment choices, in a way blaming her for her own death. All of that is pointless. This woman was a scientist with a doctorate degree, so I believe that she was well-informed in her choices. And in hindsight, although when we talked about her health she tried not to dwell on it, she was prepared for the end.

In the past year or so, she had been tidying up her affairs in the event that she passed away. I did not think that death was imminent; I just took it as the normal course of things to do for a person up there in age, having property and children and wanting to avoid conflicts after she was gone. Now I know that she was prepared for nature to take its course.

She was a long-time family friend, and only recently did she and I find ourselves in circumstances that developed our close bond. I learnt a lot from her, admired her, and was inspired by her life. And rather than blame her for her choices, or be angry with her, I respect her choice. It is not a popular choice to refuse certain forms of medical treatment knowing that the alternative is certain death. It is not a choice that the loved ones left behind take kindly to. We want our loved ones to live forever. My grandmother lived up to 104 years, and even though in the end we knew that she was weak and the end was near, we hoped for more time, to share more stories, to laugh with her, to hold her hand, to physically see and touch the traits that we shared with her. But we knew she was not the same. Sometimes, we, her children and grandchildren, reminisced with some sadness over her youth and how active she was. But she still had her wit, so we held on.

Letting go of a person is never easy. Even when death is expected, when a person is terminally ill, we think that we are prepared for the inevitable, but grief is grief. The law respects life; the right to life is one of our fundamental human rights. But attached to our right to life is the right to dignity of life. Which is why the law allows us some autonomy in how we live and how we die.

The general rule is that you are not allowed to take your own life through suicide, or engage the help of a third party to assist you in killing yourself, but you can refuse medical treatment, even if that medical treatment will save your life. It is respect for our personal autonomy and right to self-determination.

A few days before I was informed of my friend’s passing on, a 68-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis had been allowed to end her life in what has been called a landmark decision in the UK. The woman who is in a “minimally conscious state” was being fed and hydrated artificially.

Her daughter asked the courts to stop this medical intervention and preserve her mother’s dignity of life. She testified that her mother, who was completely incapacitated and had suffered a lot of indignity over the last couple of years due to her illness, would not want to be kept alive the way she was. The courts agreed. Usually, the courts will not grant such an order unless the patient has been declared brain dead. This is a landmark ruling because the patient is in a “minimally conscious state,” meaning that there is still brain function. The ruling is not without controversy as some see it as allowing assisted suicide/euthanasia through the back door.

Assisted suicide is a door that most societies wish to keep closed as opening it will not only allow the end to the suffering of patients with degenerative, terminal disease, it will allow an excuse for those who just want to get rid of someone for financial benefit or convenience or other unlawful reason.

It is an issue with no easy answers and sometimes the courts have been asked to step in. In America, some of the guess work is taken out of the decision when a patient has an advance directive as to how their treatment should proceed (or not). People refuse medical treatment for various reasons including religious beliefs, personal beliefs and other practical reasons. The following is a quote from Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon, Jr. of the Supreme Court of Arizona in Rasmussen v. Fleming (1987) 154 Ariz. 207:

“Not long ago the realms of life and death were delineated by a bright line. Now this line is blurred by wondrous advances in medical technology – advances that until recent years were only ideas conceivable by such science-fiction visionaries as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Medical technology has effectively created a twilight zone of suspended animation where death commences while life, in some form, continues. Some patients, however, want no part of a life sustained only by medical technology. Instead, they prefer a plan of medical treatment that allows nature to take its course and permits them to die with dignity.

“As more individuals assert their right to refuse medical treatment, more frequently do the disciplines of medicine, law, philosophy, technology, and religion collide.

This interdisciplinary interplay raises many questions to which no single person or profession has all the answers.”
Pocket Lawyer: Dignity of life  Pocket Lawyer: Dignity of life Reviewed by Vita Ioanes on Sunday, December 06, 2015 Rating: 5

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