Being At One with Desmond Tutu

credit acpinternist.org

It’s almost like being on the side of the angels, claiming kinship-by-association with Desmond Tutu. Ever since the retired Anglican bishop, South African social activist, Nobel laureate and all-around pretty saintly gentleman came out in favor of this writer’s cause, Death with Dignity, it’s been a cause for celebration. Bishop Tutu’s eloquent statement, published in The Guardian of July 12, was prompted by a bill currently under consideration by Britain’s House of Lords – which has now gone farther than many had expected and may indeed become the law of the land in the Mother Country.

Death with dignity – physician aid in dying, the legal right for a terminally ill person to hasten the process if she so chooses – has slowly been gaining in the U.S. The Oregon law has proven successful for well over a decade, and DWD is now legal also in New Mexico, Washington, Vermont and Montana (where it’s considered a private issue between patient and doctor.) Bills are currently underway in a handful of other states. And in California, the movement’s leading organization, Compassion and Choices (on whose Northern California leadership council this writer still serves) is mounting a multi-million dollar campaign to legalize death with dignity in that state. Past efforts in California, where polls show a large majority of citizens support DWD, have failed by very small margins. It’s interesting to note that opposition to end-of-life choice comes largely from the same religious and conservative groups that oppose women’s rights to reproductive choices; at least one out of two of this writer’s causes is gaining ground.

Support for Death With Dignity from across the ocean  is encouraging. And when it comes from Desmond Tutu it carries a particularly gratifying weight.

Bishop Tutu, acknowledging that he is himself closer to the end of life than its beginning, said in his statement, “I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying.” That means, he explains, allowing death to come as naturally as possible and avoiding any machines that would artificially prolong life.

“Dying is part of life,” Tutu writes, “…And since dying is part of life, talking about it shouldn’t be taboo. People should die a decent death. For me that means having had the conversations with those I have crossed in life and being at peace.” He also advocates completing advance directives, something Compassion and Choices emphatically promotes. Forms are available on the website. Whatever your age or state of health, if you haven’t done these things yet, this very minute is a good time to start.

Bishop Tutu declares the dying days of his friend Nelson Mandela “an affront.” When the widely beloved South African leader was televised with political leaders Tutu points out that Mandela “was not fully there. He did not speak. He was not connecting. My friend was no longer himself. It was an affront to Madiba’s dignity.”

The good bishop is having none of that.

“I revere the sanctity of life,” he writes, “but not at any cost. I confirm I don’t want my life prolonged… I would probably incline towards the quality of life argument.”

The entire statement is well worth the time of every reader. Check it out – after you’ve completed your own advance directive.

Sir Edward's Choice

It is ironic that while some of us were offering mostly light-hearted comments about how we might choose to die, news circulated  that  Great Britain’s reknowned conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife had just made that very real decision for themselves.

Sir Edward and his wife Joan, a ballerina before she gave up her own career in support of his and of their family, flew to a Swiss clinic sponsored by the Dignitas organization with their two grown children to end their lives together. He was 85, almost blind and losing his hearing; she was in the final stages of terminal cancer.

I strongly support the right of terminally ill, mentally comptetent adults to hasten their own death. While there is a very distinct line between hastened dying for the terminally ill and “suicide,” it would seem almost cruel to criticize Sir Edward’s choice. And the key word is choice.

What most of us would choose is precisely what Sir Edward and his wife did indeed have: a swift, peaceful end with loved ones at the bedside. Few of us would choose what actually happens too often in the U.S.: prolonged pain and indignity, often a death that follows extended, expensive, frequently futile treatment, in circumstances we would never have chosen for ourselves.

Physician aid in dying, now legal in Oregon and Washington, is one good way to put rational choice back in the hands of mentally competent adults.  The Oregon law has been in effect for over a decade and has proven that such legislation works. It offers comfort and compassion and has not been abused. Efforts to extend this humane law into other states have been vigorously fought by religious groups, but end-of-life choice is just as much a right as is reproductive choice; like other individual rights, it will eventually come.

Given the enormous financial cost of the universal healthcare system most of us want, and the enormous human cost of futile end-of-life treatments and denial of physician aid to terminally ill adults, the time has come for serious dialogue about the right to die.

Sir Edward Downes left a remarkable legacy in his music. A very private man throughout his long life, he nonetheless left another admirable legacy in his poignant death. Maybe those of us over here in the colonies can learn something. Maybe we could at least honor him with a little civilized discourse.