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Debating Death With Dignity

I was delighted to see all the letters to the editor (Fall '03) in response to the article about my mother and her choice to end her life using physician-assisted suicide. My mother had a great mind, and she loved intellectual debate. She would be pleased to be the cause of debate almost three years after her death. The letters clearly fall into two categories: Those who appreciate the individual choice that is present in Oregon's Death with Dignity Law, and those who have a religious belief that we do not have an individual right to end our life, whatever the circumstances, as our lives are "divinely given" and we must "abandon our sufferings to the will of God." I have great respect for the spirituality of those opposed to physician-assisted suicide (PAS) on religious grounds. However my mother and I do not subscribe to those beliefs. I would not presume to suggest that the beliefs of others are wrong—clearly people's beliefs are very right for them and give great comfort—but if others' religious beliefs are to dictate my life and death, where does that leave me? I am a very moral person who lives life by a strong set of values that likely closely mirrors those of individuals opposed to PAS. I believe that our differences should be left as our differences. I will not impose my spiritual beliefs and values on the choices they make for their lives, and do not want their values imposed on me. Isn't that what living in the United States is all about—individual freedom and choice—so long as it does not injure another?
Julie Sutherland McMurchie '85
Portland, Ore.

None of your letters in response to Peggy Sutherland's story mentions an important aspect of our secular age—that today's technology can lengthen people's lives until they are so fragile, and living so minimally, that one must ask whether this is still the life God gave them, or rather our defiance of God's plan—non-acceptance that our lives are God-given. Medical technology has made it so much harder to decide where the "slippery slope" begins. Is it more loving, and of greater respect for the image of God in a family member to leave the patient in the hospital as a helpless slave to a life-support machine, with no choices at all, than to do what Peggy Sutherland's family did?

This vegetative, machine-dependent "life" is what my parents feared more than death as they grew older. They each promised never to allow it for the other, and when my father lay in the throes of pneumonia last month, my mother was strong enough to keep the promise—no ventilator—though the hospital staff was pushing it. You have to be there at such a moment to realise how hard that decision is in the presence of real human life. Mom was even organising to have Dad moved to hospice care, but death came that night. Was she, and were the doctors who didn't force the ventilator on him when she was out of the room, complicit in murder? If not, then Peggy Sutherland's family wasn't either. In my understanding of God, only decisions not made by the patient together with loved ones, and which do not accept death as the natural conclusion of life, can be wrong. And love is a gift—it cannot be guaranteed by laws or society. So let's be grateful for this gift and not be so ready to pass judgment on one another's convictions.
Isabel Best '61
Nyon, Switzerland

Corrections: The name of Wiley Bucey '47 was misspelled in the Fall '03 issue. A letter from Nancy Tittler '74 in the Summer '03 issue had a misspelling of the last name of Samuel and Wilma Dixon Isseks.