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Dying at the right time

Dying at the right time - Dying at the Right Time...

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Dying at the Right Time: Reflections on Assisted and Unassisted Suicide by John Hardwig From: LaFollette, H., ed. Ethics in Practice (Blackwell, September 1996). Let us begin with two observations about chronic illness and death: 1) Death does not always come at the right time. We are all aware of the tragedies involved when death comes too soon We are afraid that it might come too soon for us. By contrast, we may sometimes be tempted to deny that death can come too late -- wouldn't everyone want to live longer? But in our more sober moments, most of us know perfectly well that death can come too late. 2) Discussions of death and dying usually proceed as if death came only to hermits -- or others who are all alone. But most of the time, death is a death in the family. We are connected to family and loved ones. We are sustained by these connections. They are a major part of what makes life worth living for most of us. Because of these connections, when death comes too soon, the tragedy is often two-fold: a tragedy both for the person who is now dead and for those of us to whom she was connected. We grieve both for our loved one who is gone and for ourselves who have lost her. On one hand, there is the unrealized good that life would have been for the dead person herself -- what she could have become, what she could have experienced, what she wanted for herself. On the other, there is the contribution she would have made to others and the ways their lives would have been enriched by her. We are less familiar with the idea that death can come too late. But here, too, the tragedy can be two-fold. Death can come too late because of what living on means to the person herself. There are times when someone does not (or would not) want to live like this, times when she believes she would be better off dead. At times like these, suicide or assisted suicide becomes a perfectly rational choice, perhaps even the best available option for her. We are then forced to ask, Does someone have a right to die? Assisted suicide may then be an act of compassion, no more than relieving her misery. There are also, sadly, times when death comes too late because others -- family and loved ones -- would be better off if someone were dead. (Better off overall, despite the loss of a loved one.) Since lives are deeply intertwined, the lives of the rest of the family can be dragged down, impoverished, compromised, perhaps even ruined because of what they must go through if she lives on. When death comes too late because of the effect of someone's life on her loved ones, we are, I think, forced to ask, Can someone have a duty to die? Suicide may then be an attempt to do what is right; it may be the only loving thing to do. Assisted suicide would then be helping someone do the right thing.
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