Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethics of 'Mercy Killing'

Robert Latimer recently tried to get parole, but was denied because he showed no remorse. He's a man who locked his daughter in his truck and piped in carbon monoxide until she died. He freely admitted to doing it and has always maintained that it was for her own good. Why? Because Tracy had severe cerebral palsy.

Tracy could not speak and had minimal movement. At 12 years old, she was considered to be at the developmental level of a 3 month old. She had contractures and similar painful physical problems caused by lack of movement and spasticity. She'd received several surgeries. At the time of her death, doctors had been trying to convince her father to consent to her receiving surgery on her hip because spasticity had caused her hip to become dislocated. Her father felt that she would want to be put out of her suffering.

Let's assume we've decided that assisted suicide is OK (by assisted suicide, I mean a person specifically requesting and receiving assistance to kill themselves). Let's also assume that Tracy Latimer was indeed in significant pain. Did Robert Latimer do the right thing?

One big consideration when consenting to treatment (or lack of treatment) on behalf of someone who can't express their own desires is what you think they'd want. If you use the same standard for proxy consent to assisted suicide, then whether Tracy would want to live or die is a crucial question. Can you assume, based on her chronic pain, that she'd want to die?

I've heard of an autistic woman. Like Tracy, she can't speak. Like Tracy, she has chronic pain, due to a variety of physical problems such as migraines, hypermobility and a nerve problem causing agonizing facial pain.

Unlike Tracy, this woman, Amanda Baggs, can communicate her own desires. She types. Does she want assisted suicide? As she says in this post - no. Most emphatically no. In an earlier post, she stated that she didn't want people thinking of her as 'happier now' in an afterlife where she is nondisabled.

In conclusion, even if you support assisted suicide (I don't think I do, though I can't explain why), no one can make that decision for someone else. Robert Latimer, you have no idea if Tracy really wanted to die. You projected your stereotypes of what a life like hers was like, and made the decision for her. For all you know, she was silently begging for her life as you killed her.

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Blogger Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

Ettina, I think another of Amanda's posts that would be relevant here is Life's Infinite Richness.

I think what determines how filled up you are with the joy of life has little to do with one's capacity for holding that joy, or the specific range of experiences one has access to; it has more to do with other things, such as how well one has learned to value one's self, or how much of your capacities (including self-determination) you have had the opportunity to actually exercise, etc.

(Of course, neurological biochemical issues can also be an important factor; some people may well be biologically more disposed to depression than others. But that's a different set of issues.)

Oh, and Dave Hingsburger had a recent post entitled Lucky that I think also applies.


4:32 AM  

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