Thursday, October 18, 2012

Death: pros and cons

I am both for death and against death this election season.  Californians will vote on Proposition34 that would abolish the death penalty.  In Massachusetts Question 2 would permit assisted suicide (under a whole range of rules and conditions, like in Portland, OR).  I would vote to allow individuals and their families to choose a dignified death while I oppose state sanctioned death.  The two ballot choices have death in common, what matters is who makes the decision.
My father and I had many conversations over the years about dying.  Some were esoteric intellectual musings that disintegrated into rambling diatribes about the meaning of life.  In later years after his stroke the discussions became more personal.  I researched and studied all of the various options and we corresponded regularly about it. 
There were two conversations in this process that remain with me.  One was sitting at the Dining Room table with both my parents filling out a very detailed document of their medical wishes.  Most forms are pretty generic – want to have a machine assist?  Yes or no.  This document, rooted in the Episcopal Church tradition, drilled down.  Is oxygen OK to ease the pain versus a ventilator that is needed for living?  Difficult conversations and at the end of this several hour process we not only had a mutual understanding for legal purposes, we had a familial agreement.
Some years later as Dad’s prognoses deteriorated and it was clear that the end was coming, the years of detailed discussions he and I had been having needed to be part of a larger family discussion.  In the living room we approached a subject that most of us are uncomfortable with:  How Dad wanted to die. Consensus and agreement didn’t ever materialize.  That’s not the point.  We all knew what Dad’s fears were and what his wishes were.  At a certain point those wishes couldn’t be fulfilled because of the laws in the state of Massachusetts and he died before any of those ‘what if’ scenarios materialized. 
It is for those years of conversations that I support having options available in the law.  Our family may never have gotten to the point where we would have ever actually taken action, but the idea that we could have would have made a monumental difference in Dad’s life and our respecting his wishes.  In a country that celebrates individualism, assisted suicide (with rigorous controls in place) is something that is needed.
On the Death Penalty:  Government should not be in the business of killing people.  The U.S. system is based on justice, not vengeance.  It’s really that simple.
There are financial arguments as well. 
·       Putting a prisoner to death cost Californians $4 billion since 1978 and less than a handful of people have been executed. 
·       Maryland spent $37.2 million per execution. 
·       Approx. 25% of all medical costs occur in the last year of life.
Putting a price on somebody’s life is a helpful way to look at the public policy part of the issue.  The value that any of us would place on a loved one versus a nameless prisoner will be inherently disproportionate.  We must as a society value life.  We do that by respecting people’s individual choice with their doctor and their family on how that life should end.  We do that by punishment rather than vengeance.  If that all saves some money in the end, great.  It might just make us a better people too.

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