October 19, 2003


Unraveling the Mortal Coil, in Plain View (FRANK BRUNI, 10/19/03, NY Times)

[C]atholic leaders and people who know the pope say he also believes that any suffering he endures has value, providing people with an inspirational image of courage. Experts on aging say John Paul is providing people with something else as well: a reminder and warning of questions that society must confront as medical advances prolong people's lives.

What is the proper way to respect older people and reap the benefits of their perspectives while also making adjustments for their possibly diminished abilities? What belongs in public, and what is better left in private?

"In a sense, he really captures a dilemma," said Harry Moody, a senior researcher at the International Longevity Center in New York, a policy analysis group. "If we do prize and value the contributions and the wisdom of elders, how do we reconcile that with the dignity we want to give them?"

Mr. Moody said the prominence of the pope's stooped, largely immobile figure in the news media was "certainly unprecedented in political terms, in religious terms."

But, he added, "It's not without implications in an aging society."

As if the Pope hasn't already done more than his share to try to shore up the rickety moral framework of the West, his conscious decision to die in full view may be as important as anything he's ever done. In an age when people blithely assume that some lives are not worth living -- and act on that belief by killing the very young, the old, the infirm, and the handicapped -- he's demonstrating the essential dignity that a suffering soul retains.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2003 9:17 AM

As ever, you are spot on.
P.S. thanks for the book!

Posted by: andrew at October 19, 2003 9:38 AM

I've never seen that argument put before. I like it. That is the reason it is good that people die surrounded by family and also why the modern notion that it is better to die alone so the family "won't remember you that way" is mistaken.

Posted by: Peter B at October 19, 2003 10:08 AM

Not all lives are worth prolonging until the final second. With certain exceptions, I don't make that choice for others, and I'd like the same consideration in return.

As for the "essential dignity" argument, dignity is both a cultural and personal assessment, so anyone espousing it, and I'm thinking of oj here, seems to be calling for the human race to become oj clones, which is antithetical to the "biotechnology is anti-human" argument, as well as this blog's side of the G.U.T.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 20, 2003 7:55 AM


That's true--there are many people who live life as if they had no dignity and the act of ending your own life may be done with dignity. The question you're referring to is whether you have a right to force others to treat you as if you had no dignity.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2003 8:10 AM

The question Michael is referring to is whether you have a right to force others to treat you and your concept of dignity the same way as you would do so for yourself, if you could.

If one has made their previous wishes known, but is no longer able to communicate them, or is able to communicate their existing wishes, but is unable to act upon them, then on what basis should those wishes be ignored?

Especially when, in most cases, the desired wish is the removal of invasive support.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 20, 2003 11:43 AM

Yes, Jeff, that's precisely right: are you entitled to force others to kill you against their own morality or to force society to against its moral consensus. The answers may be yes, but that's not an extension of freedom.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2003 12:04 PM

I think there's a difference between stopping invasive support and euthanasia. One is letting nature take its course and the other is prematurely ending it.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 20, 2003 2:15 PM


Granted, but how come what seems to be such a clear philosophical distinction becomes hopelessly muddled whenever we try to implement one or the other?

Posted by: Peter B at October 20, 2003 7:51 PM


It's NOT an extension of freedom to require the state to butt out of your death ?

As to invasive treatment, vs euthanasia: Suppose that one is in a fairly robust condition, but suffering from excruciating pain, and perhaps also slowly dying. The current state of affairs, in America, is that it is illegal to kill, or attempt to kill, oneself, and also to ask a professional to assist. In addition, the hypocritical, craven trolls in D.C. actively prevent doctors from effectively treating pain.
Thus, legally and morally, one is just supposed to suck it up, and die screaming. That is simply unacceptable to me.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 21, 2003 1:45 AM


Obviously any time you are allowed to place an affirmative obligation on others--as in assisted suicide--you are taking away their freedom. No one argues that extreme measures should be taken by the state to prevent people from killing themselves.

Pain can be treated quite effectively these days. I assume you mean marijuana or something? But it is less effective than actual medications.

Posted by: OJ at October 21, 2003 8:40 AM

Michael is saying that doctors are prohibited from giving enough pain medication to adequately treat the pain, because to do so would also give the patient the ability to end the pain. Permanently.

My wife's dad endured a great deal of pain in order to save up enough morphine to end it.

So tell me again why the State's opinion on this is something I should hope to have?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 21, 2003 12:02 PM

In other words, if he'd taken his meds he wouldn't have had the pain. Pain management for the dying is a worthwhile but entirely separate issue.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2003 2:29 PM


In my original words--the first sentence is reasonably clear, the pain meds weren't enough. The docs wouldn't give him enough because if they did, he would also have had enough to do precisely what he wanted to.

Which he did anyway, without asking the State's permission.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 21, 2003 9:32 PM

Yes? No one's objecting to people killing themselves. The point is that just because they want to die doesn't allow them to impose an obligation on others to kill them.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2003 9:57 PM

Further, because of the addictive nature of powerful pain killers, even non-suicidal people are often denied enough of the right medication, not because doctors are heartless, but because the DEA threatens to pull the medical license of anyone they think is overprescribing narcotics.

Ask the Missus.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 22, 2003 5:24 AM