I believe that adults have a basic human right to end their lives when they suffer from a fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain--when their quality of life is unacceptable, and the future holds only hopelessness and misery. I have believed that for years, and I have been doing something about it.
I joined the Hemlock Society, and afterward helped create the Final Exit Network. I became its first medical director, taking on the task of evaluating persons who wished to exercise the right to end life when life was no longer bearable.
For this work, I was arrested and put in jail. I am now out on $60,000 bail. Being put in jail gets your attention, I can tell you. I once asked anti-nuclear activist Sam Day what it was like being in jail six months. He laughed and said it was best to have a good reason to do that. I have good reasons.
I've listened to the grim stories of persons with incurable diseases such as cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, and emphysema. I've cared for them. And I've comforted them while guiding them towards the end of their suffering.
I remember Mary, who was injured in an auto accident and broke her back. She suffered excruciating back pain for eight years, every time she moved or coughed or even sneezed. But she had a lot of morphine pills, so I advised her. One day, in my presence, Mary began swallowing her morphine pills, three at a time, washing them down with a sip of fancy chardonnay. My colleague and I sat quietly. Then I noticed Mary was smiling. She burst out of her morphine haze and said, "I haven't smiled in ten years with all that pain!"
It was wonderful telling Mary that the pain was now going to be gone forever. She smiled even more and swallowed three more pills, and three more, and three more, until she stopped.
I remember a patient with cancer spread to her bones and liver. She was a psychiatrist. She was quite aware that her weakness and weight loss meant that she was going to die. Although she could put up with the pain, she wanted control over herself.
"You know," she said when we had finished greetings, "I have been an atheist most of my adult life but ..." She was quiet a moment, and then said, "God bless you." We were laughing through the sadness as she took her medicine.
We who are guides for the Final Exit Network often are invited into the intimate story of family life and caring. One patient had suffered with a nasty case of Huntington's chorea for fifteen years.
He was an attorney who began to twitch...