Last week brought a story that should serve as a reminder of why we need to enact laws that allow terminally ill patients to choose to die with dignity, rather than making them suffer through a long, painful, and inevitable decline and death. Charles Snelling, an 81-year-old man living in Pennsylvania shot and killed his wife of 61 years, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past six years, and then himself. As the New York Times reported:
On Thursday, months after contributing a poignant essay to The New York Times about navigating a six-decade marriage upended by his spouse’s Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. Snelling killed his wife and himself, the Snelling family said in a statement released to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.. They were found Thursday in their home in Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania, the police said. Mr. Snelling shot himself, the coroner said. The ruling on Ms. Snelling’s death was pending. Both were 81.
In the statement, the Snelling family said Mr. Snelling had acted “out of deep devotion and profound love.”
A bit of a debate has broken out online as to whether Mr. Snelling’s actions were merciful or immoral. Columnist David Brooks weighed in on the debate in his Monday column titled Respect the Future, stating that he believed that Mr. Snelling was either “so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake.” While acknowledging that Mr. Snelling was undoubtedly distraught about his wife’s illness, Mr. Brooks contends that Mr. Snelling’s actions were wrong because:
We are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We underestimate the power of temperament to gradually pull us up from the lowest lows. And if our capacities for imagining the future are bad in normal times, they are horrible in moments of stress and suffering. Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking.
. . . .
If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call. Maybe his moments of pain from here on out would have outnumbered his moments of pleasure. But if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.
Winning Progressive has certainly been critical of Mr. Brooks on a number of occasions in the past. But rarely have I thought that Mr. Brooks is as far off-base as he is with his criticisms of Mr. Snelling. Having spent much of the past four years caring for my father who is slowly disappearing due to dementia, I am certainly not going to judge Mr. Snelling for his actions. While caregiving can be an extremely meaningful and rewarding act, it is also a painful and heartwrenching experience as you watch a person you love go through the suffering of losing their mind. More importantly, while Mr. Brooks focuses on the pain and hopelessness that Mr. Snelling must have felt as a caregiver for his wife, I would venture to say that Mr. Snelling was almost certainly motivated not by his own pain, but rather by a desire to put his wife out of her pain. Who are we to second guess how Mr. Snelling handled that situation?
The larger lesson to take away from the story of Mr. and Mrs. Snelling is that it is a disturbing reminder of the deleterious impacts of our society’s refusal to allow people to choose death with dignity through assisted suicide. We live in a nation where we can put our sickly pets out of their misery, but we are not allowed to arrange for ourselves to die with dignity. As a result, we end up with significant unnecessary suffering, as people whose bodies and minds are riddled with the often unbearable pain of end-stage cancer, ALS, Alzheimers, and other diseases are unable to find any relief from their suffering. Such situations inflict unnecessary pain on not only the individual with the terminal illness, but also on their family and friends who have to watch them suffer for days, months, and even years on end with no chance of relief. Faced with such circumstances, it is not surprising that some people would feel they have to go to extreme measures to help a loved one who has dementia avoid any further suffering. It is not a choice I would make, but I can see why Mr. Snelling would. And, after 61 years of marriage, I can see why Mr. Snelling would choose to die with his spouse, rather than face criminal prosecution for an act of love and mercy.
One way to help reduce or alleviate these painful situations would be for states to pass “Death With Dignity” type laws that allow a terminally ill individual to get medical assistance in hastening their death, but only through a highly regulated system that includes multiple doctor sign offs, waiting periods, and other precautions to ensure that sick people are not being pressured into assisted suicide.
Critics of assisted suicide contend that death with dignity type laws will put us on a slippery slope to frequent suicide of people who are not necessarily terminally ill. The critics’ argument, however, is belied by the facts on the ground, as the slippery slope they imagine has not occurred in the places where assisted suicide is allowed. For example, in the 14 years that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act has been in place, the most number of people in a year who have requested the lethal dose of medication that doctors are allowed to prescribe under the law is 114, and no more than 71 people have actually ended their lives in any year under the Act. This amounts to a total of 0.2% of total deaths in Oregon in 2010. Similarly, in the first two years of Washington State’s death with dignity law, only 152 people requested lethal medication, and only 135 actually took the medication and died. Even in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide has been legal since 2002 and there has been an active right to die movement since 1973, only 2% of deaths every year result from assisted suicide. In short, where assisted suicide has been allowed, there has not been a stampede toward death. Instead, the levels of people seeking assisted suicide suggest that the system is being used appropriately by people seeking to avoid unbearable physical and mental pain due to terminal illness.
No system if perfect, and any system is going to lead to some unnecessary pain and heartache. But, as the story of Mr. and Mrs. Snelling shows, the current system that forecloses assisted suicide in all but two states is simply unbearable for far too many people facing terminal illness. We can work to change that by establishing systems that allow for terminally ill patients to choose to end their lives in dignity and that includes the checks and balances necessary to help ensure that such system is not abused. If you want to help make such systems a reality, check out these two groups that are working to enact death with dignity laws in all 50 states – Death With Dignity and Compassion & Choices.