What Do Those of Us Who Do not Wish for Death Owe Those Who Do?

Terminal Illness2


Terminal Illness1

The film that recently won the “Best Screenplay” Award at Cannes Film Festival invites us to consider the question I asked in the title of this post.  Chronic is an outstanding illustration of the virtue of independent films. Its topic is neither clean, nor pretty, nor uplifting. At the film festival where I recently saw the film, a sizable minority of the audiences set stunned for a few minutes at its conclusion. Soon, our collective exit was aflutter with “I hope the next film is more positive.” and “That one did not leave me feeling happy.”  We die, and the process is often excruciatingly unpleasant.

Referring to the 2 visuals at the top of this post, we see that to desire an expedited death should involve the interests of more than the person who wishes to die. But is it not the case that the primary interests are those of the person who wishes an early exit? Everyone else will have time to enjoy multiple sunsets and to watch wild animals at play. They will eat multiple culinary delights.  The person who wishes for death now or soon is in a condition such that he or she no longer cares about what seems to him or her insignificant joys. How dare we the healthy survivors say to the person who wishes to die that such a wish is selfish! Is there not selfishness a plenty involved in trying to compel the person to live?

The film does a solid job of raising all of the standard questions such as the following:

  1. Is the person in a state such that consent is clear?  Such a question presumes that ordinarily we are calm, thoughtful, and cognizant of probable consequences.  Really, is that who we are?  I guess I have not been watching the right humans make decisions.
  2. Does a person who helps someone die playing god?  These questions sound so profound, but on closer examination, I think they are naive. We do on a regular basis play god in ways that affect people’s mortality. When whites set idly by and allow their country to provide levels of opportunity resulting in African Americans living 4-6 years less on average than whites year after year, are they not playing god? When people vote for tax levels and policy priorities that ignore the causes of death, are they not playing god?

We need a conversation that is much deeper than those standard arguments about the attitudes and behaviors that others owe those who wish to expedite their deaths. Watching the film Chronic is a profitable place to start.

Something happened before the showing of Chronic that exemplifies how complex this question is.  A representative for Hospice made a statement at the start of the film that was antagonistic to “what you will see in this film.”  Hospice correctly sees itself as being less aggressive in expediting the requests of those who wish to die. BUT, the Hospice people are seen by many MD’s as doing precisely what the Hospice people are criticizing in the film. When Hospice stops everything but pain reduction treatment, they are certainly “playing god”, a term that covers a great deal of territory. It was clear to me certainly that when Hospice took over the care of my parents with my permission, we were all saying “sooner, rather than later.”

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