OpEd: Death: the ultimate painkiller
On Jan. 14, retired Denver hand surgeon, Charles Hamlin presented a lecture, “Mortality, Morality and Honor” in the Fraser Library. It was billed as a lecture with a “philosophic bent, humor, some data but no dogma about the landscape of ‘the last chapter’” Dr. Hamlin is an ardent supporter of a death with dignity bill that may be coming up again in 2016 in the Colorado General Assembly.
My wife and I arrived about 10 minutes early expecting a low turnout. We were astounded to find the library packed with a standing room only audience. One could say folks, were dying to get in, but that wouldn’t be appropriate.
At the center of the presentation was the notion that the state confers the right of terminally ill patients to obtain prescribed medication, which would end their lives. In short, it is a suicide pill. Dr. Hamiln dogmatically asserted that the Bible could be used to promote virtually any belief any one wants to hold. Therefore objection to this ‘last chapter” idea for Biblical reasons, was deemed irrelevant. Hamlin lauded Roman Catholic Cardinal Cushing’s position that it was wrong for Catholics, to seek to impose by law, their moral views on other members of society. This was met by enthusiastic nods by Hamlin’s disciples. The doctor went on to quote existentialists Sarte and Camus to make the point that he was against all suffering at all times and that it was the right of the person in the throes of death to terminate their “lowered quality” of life at their discretion.
When Hamlin opened the floor for “dialogue”, the rising tension and emotion in the room, was immediately palpable. Some in the audience pushed back against Hamlin’s arguments. Personal anecdotes were given regarding the suffering of loved ones and how that suffering resulted in a deep awareness of God’s presence in a way that was never experienced by the family before. Those stories were almost always met by outbursts such as, “That is your belief, not mine” and “This is not about your family, it is about the suffering of the victim”.
A catholic priest, Father Joseph, spoke on the Biblical precept that life was precious. He stressed that suffering was a part of life until such time that God saw fit to bring that life to an end. Dr. Hamlin called for an end to his remarks, saying that they were not germane to the discussion. “We are talking apples and oranges here”, he said. Father Joseph was cut off because he was evidently not following Cardinal Cushing’s lead. He apparently committed the “ultimate sin” of publicly imposing one’s religious beliefs on society as a whole.
Then it struck me. Ironically, Dr. Charles Hamlin was attempting to do the very same thing that he condemned! Hamlin was imposing his religious views and morality on those in the Fraser Library that evening. Beyond that I saw, he has continuously attempted to impose his religious beliefs on society, by his untiring efforts in seeing this “benevolent suicide” bill become law. Though he stopped Father Joseph because of his religious worldview, Dr. Hamlin was no less motivated by his own religious construct. Indeed that night, we were treated to a 45-minute sermon by Hamlin, the arguments of which were obviously born from the speaker’s particular belief system. Hamlin’s religious principles were clearly in stark contrast to that of the Catholic priest but make no mistake, they were religious beliefs. What was troubling to me was that Hamlin simply did not seem to be aware of that salient point.
Whether Dr. Charles Hamlin is ultimately successful in convincing the majority of Coloradans that his views are right, remains to be seen. I suspect ultimately, he will be. But in grappling with this very complex and emotional issue, I believe we all ought to resist any and all efforts to be disingenuous in our arguments. Those taking the lead on both sides of this controversy are ethically and morally compelled to honestly consider the validity of their premises.
As a baby boomer, I have been conditioned to do whatever it takes to relieve pain. In the 60’s we were told we could prevent “iron poor blood” by taking Geritol. Whenever we had aches or pains, we took ibuprofen or something even stronger. If we were depressed, there was a pill for that. If we had trouble sleeping there were pills for that. And if all else failed, there was always alcohol. It seems to me that we are a generation of folks who will do almost anything to avoid the unpleasant aspects of our life. I am not saying that personal autonomy in ending our final chapter of suffering is a bad thing. Years ago, I stood by the bedside of a friend who suffered through the last stages of ALS, aka: Lou Gehrig’s disease. If it were me, I thought back then, I could see myself demanding the pill at the first onset of real, excruciating pain, or even at the diagnosis that I had ALS. But if I did that, would I be short-circuiting a greater divine plan for my life? Would it make suicide much more “agreeable” in my personal worldview than it was when I was healthy and thinking like everyone else that I would live forever?
I am a big believer in individual rights, autonomy and control. But I wonder if we make this a law in Colorado, are we making a collective value judgment on what constitutes life? Are we making a judgment, based on Dr. Hamlin’s religious beliefs, that a suffering life is an undervalued life? Is a quick and painless death, the ultimate painkiller?
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