8/29/2009

Smart People Saying Dumb Things

Please read this quote by Will Wilkinson:
[P]eople tend underestimate the extent of adaptation to pain and reduced function. That’s the sort of thing a doctor might bring up in a counseling session. But it’s not clear how relevant it is. Living wills, as I understand them, primarily involve questions of what to do when a patient has lost consciousness, or is a state of heavily drugged consciousness, and is being kept alive by a respirator or other apparatus that is substituting for an organ that no longer functions. The big questions are about whether to withdraw active life-extending interventions or not, and under what conditions. If you’re functioning at a level sufficient to revise your living will, you can do that. It’s not like you’re locked into your first draft. And it’s not as if it is possible to set out in advance the conditions under which one would like to be legally euthanized. So I’m not sure I see the mistake.
What's wrong with that statement? Read the penultimate sentence again. Wilkinson confuses natural death without extreme measures with "euthanasia." Euthanasia is the active termination of life even when that life could, conceivably, continue indefinitely without medical intervention. Euthanasia does happen. It happens when a husband or wife gives extra morphine "accidentally" to a spouse suffering from excruciating and intractable pain in the final stages of cancer. It happens when someone shoots themself in the head rather than continue suffering from a terminal illness.

However, euthanasia is not when someone says that they do not want to be placed on a respirator, or have a feeding tube surgically inserted because they are no longer concious and have no chance for recovery. It is not when someone requests that if they are brain dead they do not want their body to be kept in an artificially animated state for no reason other than prolonging the suffering of their loved ones and the enrichment of the doctor's and hospital's bank accounts.

How can it be that supposedly intelligent people can be so dumb? Wilkinson's statement does nothing to enlighten but only muddies the waters further among those who have been so lucky to never see a family member or friend suffer through a terminal illness or been forced with this decision because a family member refused to confront the reality before they became incapacitated.


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