How Ethical Systems Change: Tolerable Suffering and Assisted Dying

How Ethical Systems Change: Tolerable Suffering and Assisted Dying

How Ethical Systems Change: Tolerable Suffering and Assisted Dying

How Ethical Systems Change: Tolerable Suffering and Assisted Dying

Synopsis

Medical advances prolong life. They also sometimes prolong suffering. Should we protect life or alleviate suffering? This dilemma formed the foundation for a powerful right-to-die movement and a counterbalancing concern over an emerging culture of death. What are the qualities of a life worth living? Where are the boundaries of tolerable suffering? This book is based on a hugely popular undergraduate course taught at the University of Texas, and is ideal for those interested in the social construction of social worth, social problems, and social movements.

Excerpt

The desire to prolong life sometimes conflicts with the desire to alleviate suffering. What qualities of life determine the boundaries of tolerable suffering and a life worth prolonging? Who should decide? These questions have been debated for a very long time and infuse all major moral and legal traditions.

In the 1970s, the tragic circumstances of a young woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, struck a nerve nationwide. She had lost all cognitive and emotional ability to interact with her surroundings and had entered what had recently been labeled a vegetative state. Energized by this case, efforts to secure the right to suspend life-prolonging treatments when life had lost meaning gained momentum. These efforts were further strengthened when a second case of a young woman in a persistent vegetative state again captured the public’s attention. Like Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan was in a persistent vegetative state. Like Karen Ann’s, Nancy’s parents wanted to suspend treatment and let their daughter leave life peacefully. Her case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There it was decided that if clear and convincing evidence could be found regarding what her wishes would be, the request to terminate medical treatment should be honored. Such evidence was found. Amidst protests, the tube providing nutrition to Nancy was removed. Eleven days later she died.

A decade and a half passed between the cases of Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan. During this defining period in the right-to-die movement, numerous cases were taken to court and widely discussed. Issues related to tolerable suffering and the protective boundaries of life were debated and clarified. As with abortion, religious beliefs and practices separated protagonists on one side or the other. Opposition to or support for what was increasingly referred to as assisted dying was patterned accordingly. Whatever your religious beliefs and practices, however, healthcare was limited and expensive. Who should receive priority? Discussions of how to set limits heated up when then governor of Colorado spoke to some elderly constituents gathered in Denver. “We’ve got a duty to die,” he stated, “and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” He would later explain the context in which these words were spoken, but in stating what he did, he stoked the fires of debate.

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