Dying greener and talking about euthanasia

Hey! Let’s talk about death. There are lots of posts about how to green your funeral, from cardboard caskets to fancy machines that break down human bodies into something you can safely pour down the drain. (Lost the link to that one, but trust me, it was cool.) I have no objections to greening our leavings, but I’d like to start with this simple statement: being alive is a high impact activity — higher impact than the one time expenditures of a velvet lined casket and oodles of imported flowers.

As a citizen of the developed world, I’m likely to live to my late 70s, and given my gender, probably a little longer than that. Even without kids, that’s a high impact on the planet for almost eight decades. Not just that, I’ve seen what it looks like to outlive your health, happiness, and mind, and the prospect terrifies me. My grandfather: dead at age 102 after twenty years (!) of worsening health, mind, and temper. My great aunt: a victim of Alzheimer’s so severe that she could no longer carry on a conversation. My neighbor: 94 years old, housebound, wondering why she’s still alive.

No, thank you. I’d rather my life ended with a definitive period than a long series of ellipses. I’d like to die before I become a burden on anyone else, before I get so cranky that even the cat won’t put up with me. I’d like a dignified, tidy end in which I get to turn off the lights and lock the door behind me. And in this country, it’s very unlikely to happen.

I’m talking about euthanasia options for the elderly who no longer enjoy their lives and have no prospect of ever doing so again. We offer our suffering, aging animal companions a quick and relatively painless death, yet don’t have that option for ourselves. I’ve had to put exactly one animal to sleep, and it took so much out of me that I was a mess for months afterward, but what haunted me was not having to do it, but knowing when to do it. How can you gauge whether a cat still has any quality of life? I think I’d have far less trouble knowing when I’d had enough.

I wouldn’t expect or want anyone to end a life for environmental concerns, but since we do seem to be facing a future of increasingly scarce resources, it would make sense to offer a way out of a prolonged and unhappy death, or at least have a rational and open conversation about euthanasia. Whenever overpopulation comes up, it’s almost inevitable that someone will bring up the downside of a lower birth rate: a society disproportionately made up of older people.  Japan and Taiwan are already experiencing some of these issues. However, they’re worth finding solutions for, because an ever-growing human pyramid scheme population really isn’t the solution. I’d take an aging population over a dead planet any day. Could legalizing euthanasia in more countries and under more circumstances be a small part of using our resources better as a society? Maybe.

I am not religious, romantic, or sentimental. I do not believe in souls or consider life a holy gift; I think quality of life is as or more important than life. And speaking just for myself, I wouldn’t want to use up resources on a life I was no longer able to enjoy. Actually, let me just be selfish and say that I don’t want to live a life that isn’t enjoyable, and I’d rather not muck things up trying to end my life with oleander leaves filched from the nursing home garden.

Given the frenzy over ‘death panels,’ I doubt this is a national conversation we’ll be able to have any time soon. But it will be interesting to see if resource pressures force us to revise some of our attitudes about death or just polarize us further into secular/religious camps.

What are your thoughts on euthanasia and dying greener?

10 responses to this post.

  1. Recently a friend of mine died suddenly from undiagnosed colon cancer. She didn’t even know she had it until the tumor pierced her colon and she went into sepsis. She lived for about 2 weeks from that point.

    My best friend and I were talking about it all at the memorial service and she remarked that if she got colon cancer, that’s the way she’d want to go… quickly rather than drawn out. I’m not sure what I think about it all, but I do think that much of our “health care” system is focused on prolonging life… but often this really turns into nothing more than prolonged suffering. I mean, in the days before modern medicine, most people who got cancer died in a very similar fashion to my friend. I’m just not sure that months of surgeries, radiation and chemo would have been preferable to going out quickly.

    I suppose it would give you a bit of time to get things in order and emotionally prepare yourself… but even that I’m becoming less convinced of. Can you really ever be emotionally prepared to die? Is living for 6 months with the knowledge that you’re about to die really anything more than prolonged terror?

    And in terms of getting your finances in order… if living a few extra months meant that you had time to figure out who you were leaving your money to and ensure that those you cared about would be financially secure without you, it makes sense. But unfortunately, what generally happens is that those last few months or years end up draining whatever money you’ve got to pay for the medical treatment, nursing home care etc, which really makes the whole “getting your house in order” thing a moot point.

    Here’s hoping we all live long healthy lives and then go out in an instant blaze of glory.

    Reply

    • Hi Cat,

      I’m sorry you lost a friend. That’s always a wrench, no matter how it happens. That said, I would totally be up for dying quite suddenly of undiagnosed cancer. Preferably not for a while, but just to say…I don’t want to drag things out, and I think our society is overdue for developing a more open relationship with death and dying. The resources for prolonging life should be there for those who want them, but I’d like at least an option to graciously bow out of a miserable and extended dying.

      I’ll raise a glass to your toast, although I’d prefer it if I didn’t have to leave everything up to chance!

      Reply

  2. Another provocative post, Jennifer. I’ll probably feel differently about this when I’m older, but for now the answer is “hells yeah” to euthanasia. I don’t want to live a fulfilling life only to later waste away slowly, painfully, and without my mental faculties. What good are all of the green things I do now, if I’ll more than make up for that later, bedridden in some facility for years on end, draining resources, long past the point where I can make a positive contribution to society? For now, this feels like a no-brainer.

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,

      I don’t know if we will feel differently when we’re older. It’s possible, but my mother has been a staunch supporter of euthanasia rights ever since I’ve known her, and that hasn’t changed as she’s gotten older. She’s shaped my attitudes regarding euthanasia and abortion, and it all comes down to one basic philosophy: quality of life matters. And my usual attitude about our footprint on the planet: if you don’t need or enjoy something, it’s not worth the impact.

      Reply

  3. This is really interesting. I was watching a movie last night where one of the teen male characters said he’d rather be cremated than buried. Taking up less space and all that. The conversation around death almost always centers around the people who are affected by it, versus the person who actually dies.

    This is why suicide is such a heated discussion: it’s not THAT the person killed him/herself, it’s that the people LEFT BEHIND would be upset by their passing. The pain we experience as individuals is consistently eclipsed when presented with how other people are affected by our unhappiness. It would seem that, our happiness is only relevant as long as other people are happy with it. Does that make sense?

    And this is why euthanasia is such a problem for many: few people want to deal with the loss of a loved one (voluntary or not). It’s like, people want you to live for them and if you don’t, then that’s a problem. Which is a highly problematic ideology.

    I think a person has a right to their own life, and should be able to choose when and if they want to end it. There’s no reason why a person should suffer, simply because others would become unhappy in the process. And think everyone deserves to right to say, “I’ve had enough”.

    Reply

    • Hi Parisian Feline,

      I completely agree that death is painful and disruptive to the people you leave behind. However, with regard to assisted dying, you’re already dying. There’s no way not to cause pain to your loved ones. And it seems like a planned, orderly, and tidy death at the end of a life well-lived might actually be less disruptive than a slow deterioration. I can only speak about my experience putting down my beloved 13 year old cat who had liver cancer, but after months of trying to cope with her illness, shuttling her to and from vet offices, having to force feed her — that was hell. Losing her wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t worse than the prolonged torture of watching her suffer.

      It’s a tragedy for young people to kill themselves because they lack the resources to deal with whatever is going on in their lives — I don’t think we live in a particularly supportive culture with strong, nurturing communities — but I think the case becomes quite different when you’re already reaching the end of your life. I do think our lives belong to us alone, and I’d like to see our rights expanded to include the right to a voluntary, quick, and painless death.

      Reply

  4. I think it is a great idea. It would save ourselves pain, the dying patient and the family taking care of what’s left of them. It would save space in hospitals and elder care facilities giving more room for parks and recreation for the living. It would save the government and families a considerable amount of money from all the surgeries and medicines needed. I do believe there is a program in Oregon where they will do this. It just makes sense. Some people aren’t good at killing themselves. I say we give them a helping hand!

    I would like to know your thoughts on abortion. From what you said, it seems that quality of life should apply to the mom and baby. I agree women shouldn’t go around getting abortions, in which case they should be on birth control, but accidents and rapes do happen and there should be options. If the mom doesn’t want the child what is the chances of a stranger wanting it? How many adoption homes are already full of unwanted children? We should do them and the world a favor.

    Reply

    • Hi Jessica,

      Yes, Oregon has had its Death with Dignity Law for quite a few years, but it is the only state that permits assisted death for the terminally ill. I hope we’ll one day be able to talk about expanding it to a national basis.

      I consider female reproductive rights to be one of the best way to protect women’s (and, perhaps ultimately, humanity’s) quality of life and am strongly pro-choice. I agree that abortion is less desirable than contraception, but I will always side with a woman’s right to choose over a fetus’ right to live. In the vein of using resources wisely, I think it would be great if all children on this planet were wanted and loved, and having a pro-choice world would be part of the solution to stabilizing our population. Of course, I’m in favor of education and effective, widely distributed contraception, too.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Rachel on 01/14/2012 at 16:08

    Hear hear! I totally agree with you, Jennifer. I’d never thought about it in terms of being green, but that’s a good point. Why use up resources when you’re not even appreciating being alive any more?

    Reply

    • Hi Rachel,

      Thanks! I think it’s good to think about all resources that way. If you don’t need or genuinely enjoy them, are they worth the impact? Probably not. (This is how I weasel out of traveling to see family members I don’t especially care for…)

      Reply

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