By Jay Evensen
My father’s final days did not fit any textbook definition of a quality life. He suffered from the advanced stages of dementia. He didn’t know who I was. In a rare moment when he seemed somewhat lucid, I asked him if he was scared. The look in his eyes as he nodded still brings tears to my eyes.
And yet he and I shared some of our most tender times together during those days. My stepmother at times would ask me to come to Arizona and stay with him on weekends so she could get a break from caregiving and attend to other duties. In addition to the relentless need to keep him from escaping the house, I found myself cleaning him, dressing him for bed and helping him say his prayers — repaying him, in a small way, for what he had done for me as a child so many years ago.
He had no memory of these times together as he slowly died, but I like to believe he is aware of them today.
The nation is again, as it has been off and on for more than 20 years, entertaining arguments over whether to allow assisted suicide.
California recently became the fifth state to allow people with terminal illnesses to voluntarily end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs — that is, if they are likely to die naturally within six months anyway, and if they are of sound mind and capable of willingly taking the drugs.
My father, incapable of making any decisions, would not have qualified, but that is not a complaint.
Utah lawmakers began hearing a bill Wednesday that would bring assisted suicide in Utah. That coincided with a visit to Salt Lake City by Dan Diaz. He was the husband of Brittany Maynard, who ended her life rather than suffer the end-stages of brain cancer. Her dying wish was for him to help pass legislation allowing assisted suicide in all states.
Diaz understands some people of religious faith oppose him, but he told KSL, “That person should not have the ability to impose their belief system on somebody like my wife Brittany. …”
It sounds like a compelling argument. End-of-life suffering is an intensely personal thing.
But let’s be serious. Law books are filled with rules that impose belief systems on behavior. Religion aside, the sanctioning of assisted suicide does this, too.
If we step away from an ethic that holds life sacred and prohibits humans from ending it for things other than capital crimes, we begin the dangerous task of assigning values to different manifestations of life.
Quality, not sanctity, becomes the determining factor. A life that legally qualifies as lacking quality becomes, by law, less sacred than the rest. It’s a short journey from there to a determination that children with certain illnesses or birth defects might deserve death with dignity, or perhaps not to be born at all.
Is that a crazy slippery slope argument? No, it’s reality in parts of Europe. Belgium recently passed a law allowing children to be euthanized if they are in intolerable pain, provided they understand and can give consent — something laws in many countries assume, correctly, a child is incapable of doing.
Could that happen here? Perhaps not today, but if the next generation grows up in a nation that places quality above sanctity, it may be more susceptible to such thinking, and the generation after that even more so.
Already, many people in this country choose to abort babies with Down syndrome or other conditions they determine to be too imperfect.
The important question is what society as a whole loses when it places quality above sanctity. What happens when we go from a place where we always should feel compelled to talk someone off a ledge to one where we first ask questions to determine if the jumper has a legitimate excuse?
More importantly, what happens when we devalue the type of experiences I had with my dad as I got to treat him with the dignity he deserved after a lifetime of serving me?