Death and the Quality of Life

Tony Nicklinson

I recently came across two stories that broke my heart and left me conflicted.  The first is the case of Tony Nicklinson who is paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a stroke in 2005.  Mr. Nicklinson on August 16, 2012 lost his appeal to the high court of Great Britain to end his life.   If doctors let him die before it’s “his time,” they will be prosecuted.  Mr Nicklinson was devastated by the news saying “I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery.”

The second is the video of a man swimming with his 18 year old German Shepherd who’s arthritis is so bad he can barely walk.  The man swims each day with the dog laying on his chest as the cool water eases the pain in it’s joints.  My dog sat next to me as I cried through the video.  He turned eight this year and still has plenty of spunk.  But I’m sadly aware that I have much more life to live than he does.

Tears roll down my face even now as I think of my dog getting older faster than me.  One day I will be faced with a decision on what his quality of life will be.  What if he can’t walk?  What if he doesn’t eat?  What if he’s in pain and just can’t tell me?  I would only wish that he would die happily in his sleep with his ball next to him.  But what if that’s not what’s best for him?

I’ve been at the vet when the families come in with their loved one and leave in tears; holding nothing but a collar and leash.  I hold my dog a little closer on those days.

And I sit here pondering these two strange stories.  Is a dog’s quality of life more important than a human’s?  Why shouldn’t a man who is paralyzed be permitted to end his suffering?  We seem at ease making a decision with an animal that we should “put them down”, but hesitate with a person.  Should a person not be able to choose for their self how they live out their life and to what extent?

I will admit that I know nothing of the theology on the matter.  And frankly I’m not approaching this from a theological standpoint.  My view is that modern medicine has come to a point where we can essentially keep someone alive indefinitely, even against their own wishes?  So who’s choice is it?

We recently had a beloved church member pass away.  She had suffered long with disease and in the final days many of us stayed updated via facebook as her family gathered to say goodbye.  One update before she passed was “she is at peace and done fighting”.  Done fighting?  What does that mean?

It’s interesting how these things all come together at once, sending my mind reeling to sort out the significance.  If it was me, what would I want?  What would my family want?  What would be best for all of us?

I guess the difference is prolonging life verses ending life.  But then again, hasn’t medical science given us means to prolong life well past what the body wishes sometimes?  Mr. Nicklinson is alive and functioning.  Just not to the ability that he would wish.  What is the quality of life?  Who is to define that? And depending on your definition of quality of life, where does it start and stop?  Is it health related or would it include finances?  How about all those suffering in poverty throughout the world, should we give them an out option?We’ve seen and heard stories of people using the crisis they faced while young to motivate them to greatness later in life.

If Tony Nicklinson were my friend, brother, or father would I support his wishes?  If my dog told me “I’m tired of fighting” what would I do?  Would I view the two choices separately?  Why would one be more humane than another?

Sources: The Humanist Blog,  CNN

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