Chapter XXVIII: American Assisted Suicide

By Fenigsen, Richard; Fenigsen, Ryszard | Issues in Law & Medicine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Chapter XXVIII: American Assisted Suicide


Fenigsen, Richard, Fenigsen, Ryszard, Issues in Law & Medicine


A Family Conversation in Sarasota (491) I have always liked best the West Coast of Florida, with its wonderful abundance of birds, egrets, sandpiper and plunging brown pelicans. Gina's first cousin Irving and his wife Mary used to spend the winters in their condominium on Lido Key. When we met them at a restaurant there, Mary inquired about our previous visits to Florida. "Last year we were in Palm Beach on business," said Gina. "Tell her how you appeared in the court room with a terrible flu."

Richard: Dr. MacIver sued the State of Florida, (492) he wanted to be allowed to help a patient to commit suicide but Florida's law prohibits such acts. I testified in the case.

Mary: And are you for or against assisted suicide?

R: I fight it.

M: Why?

R: Are you for?

M: Once we had dinner with a nice elderly couple who later committed suicide. He was a retired doctor and she was quite senile or had Alzheimer's disease and was totally dependent on him. They were members of some kind of society.

R: Hemlock.

M: Yes, and them being so old and frail and as they wanted to die. I don't see why not. They invited their children and friends, had a farewell dinner, and then he gave her the pills and later took the pills himself; and they both died. To go together, that was what they wanted.

R: They acted on delusion.

M: What do you mean?

R: They were together as long as they lived. There is no togetherness after death.

Irving: You may be right, in a sense.

M: But did you hear of that woman in New York who gave pills to her mother and so helped her to die? She would never have got in trouble had she not told the story. But she published a book about it and Morgenthau ...

Gina: Which Morgenthau?

R: The district attorney.

M: Yes. He arrested her. She had to take the oath and tell how sick her mother had been, and that the mother herself had badly wanted to die. The daughter got away with it but only after this whole ordeal.

R: The ordeal? Do you think one should be able to dispatch the mother, period, no questions asked?

M: No, but you know ...

R: And I wonder when the idea of writing a book entered the lady's mind. If this occurred to her before the act, she couldn't help minding the future book while she pondered and prepared the mother's suicide.

M: That is a nasty thing to say!

R: Perhaps. But the problem deserves attention. I mean, what are the real motives of family members who hasten death of a loved one? It is generally assumed that their motives can only be noble: empathy, love, desire to free the loved person from suffering. Is it always so? It is amazing that those noble explanations are unqualifiedly accepted. After all, human lives are at stake; shouldn't we be more inquisitive?

M: Maybe. Still I think people should be free to choose their own death, and if they are unable to do it themselves they should be helped. You haven't yet told me why you are against it.

R: No, I haven't. Remember, the law in this state prohibits helping another person to commit suicide. So I am under no obligation to justify my position. The burden of the proof is on those who want to change the status quo. But I'll try to explain my reasons. I could not expect much of your attention in the restaurant, over excellent food, with all that talk and music around us. Let's now go for a walk, and postpone the rest of the discussion till our next meeting.

We haven't resumed that conversation, and now we shall not be able to do so: of the four persons, two are no longer living.

The Assisted Suicide Story. Physician's assistance with suicide is all we hear nowadays, and the impression is created that this is and always has been the aim of the American "right-to-die" movement. It doesn't take a very long memory to know that physician-assisted suicide is a recent invention. …

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