"The Oregon Death with Dignity Act: 18 Years' Experience"
A lecture resented by the UCLA Health Ethics Center, September 17, 2016.
- So, what did you think? What position do you take? Or do you take one?
- I do. We learned that about a thousand people in Oregon have made use of the law in the past decade and a half allowing physician assisted suicide, that they were not depressed, but were without hope, they were well educated, were rather rich, and expressed themselves as very independent. They were not religious, but like virtually everyone in Oregon they claimed to be spiritual. Warned they would be dead in 6 months or less, they chose to die before extreme pain and disability set in.
- They said they didn't want to depend on their families who usually however were more than willing to take care of them.
- Yes. They would literally rather die than ask for help.
- They lived independent lives and wanted to die as they had lived. I think that in a world like ours where people are constantly murdering and torturing each other an individual's decision to die now rather than in a few months is not very important.
- I agree. Not because killing yourself is less important than killing others, but because it is more of the same: murdering yourself to avoid the torture of the world is a way of describing what people do to themselves in social life to avoid being tortured by it; there is nothing surprising in physical suicide after a lifetime of spiritual suicide.
- Except that these Oregonians described themselves as both spiritual and independent.
- What they call their independence is spiritual suicide.
- Killing themselves to avoid the tortures of the world. How do you make that out?
- Can we say 'spiritual' means for us an expression of life?
- And the definition of 'life'?
- A cell defined by its boundary that reproduces itself, that maintains itself in homeostasis in response to a changing world, that gathers together order in a world that is losing order, that is sometimes conscious and sometimes uses language. The independence of those who kill themselves before the world can goes against those qualities.
- But not against the first, having a boundary.
- Even there, because the boundary has to be permeable to allow in material required for reproduction. In general, a living being increases its order by gathering together like examples of its responses to the world, a habit of response that becomes part of itself. In this habit of response the world is perceived, words are created as the names of those perceptions. Consciousness arises when we step out of time and see what we have done when we have a perception and create a name. When we are able to perceive our perceptions, that is, when we watch ourselves doing what in general is known to us as perception, two new characteristics of life appear: (1) love and the sense of beauty, and (2) hierarchical use of language. In both cases we see that we are responding to the world as a whole. In the experience of love we rest in that perception. In the use of hierarchical language we pile word upon word, world upon world, until the sentence ends in a new perception of the world.*
- And then we rest? Because the new perception is beautiful?
- Yes. Do you see the relevance to the question of independence and physician assisted suicide?
- Not yet.
- Not long ago we were reading in the London Review Of Books the essays Jenny Diski wrote documenting her last days. Like the Oregonians, she too was under a sentence of death. Do you remember the reasons she gave for staying alive, enduring the pain and dependence on others?
- Love for her grandchild, her husband too, and of writing, writing the vehement protest against dying we were reading: “I could either shut up, that’s the end, get on with dying. Or, get gripped, which is what happened.”
- The Oregonian suicide's independence, to die rather than be cared for by willing family, is a life of control, murdering oneself so as not to feel the tortures of the world. It is independence, not of choosing for oneself, but choosing to keep oneself separate. It is an independence that chooses death, that in death as in life turns away from the constant remaking oneself in knowledge and love and creativity that are the qualities of life.
A Big Mistake
Language & Leaders
* Language can be internal, in which case we call it 'thought'. When language becomes external and social, its powers of organization and memory are greatly expanded.