Columnists > Soul Food

Assisted living

A personal glimpse of an abstract legal, cultural debate

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

Occasionally, God lets us see firsthand what's at stake in the culture wars. For me, the current debate over "assisted suicide" carries an intensely personal tone, because I've just witnessed the lingering death of someone very close to me. About four months ago, my mother, Judy Pickering, ended her seven-year battle against ovarian cancer and fell asleep in Christ.

For about 10 weeks before she died we knew her death was imminent. Inoperable tumors and an inoperative digestive system left little room for hope. She was heavily medicated, but my father and I already knew of her frequently stated desire to avoid the intense pain that can accompany death by cancer and to die at home instead of in a hospital.

We took her home from the hospital and put her in her own bed. For nine weeks we relied upon the generous medical and physical support of the local hospice service, hot meals every night from my parents' Sunday school class, and the loving assistance of my mother's sister as we waited for her to leave this life. Constant medication kept her almost completely free from pain, but it also kept her asleep about 23 hours a day until the morning when she finally didn't wake up at all.

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No one ever suggested to us that we contact Jack Kevorkian or take any other steps to hasten her death. Those who might have made such a suggestion probably knew of my parents' biblical Christian faith and respect for life. Although my parents both had "living wills," specifically rejecting heroic (and expensive) lifesaving measures should the prospects look dim for future productive life, they both opposed assisted suicide. I firmly agreed. I didn't have to struggle through any cost-benefit analysis or question whether my mother's would be a "death with dignity."

During my mother's last weeks, I visited regularly, sitting with her and playing the piano for her (probably the last time anyone will appreciate my piano playing). My father and my aunt were her constant companions. Her mother, brothers and in-laws, her favorite minister, close friends, and even her best friend from high school came to see her to say goodbye. A "merciful" death at the hands of one of her caretakers would have made these treasured visits impossible.

And it would have ruled out one particular visit with some relatives during which my mother managed to lucidly explain to them that they had better learn who Jesus is because one day they'd be in her situation, and if they didn't know Jesus, they'd be scared senseless. No one else could have provided such a witness from the midst of the valley of the shadow of death.

I do not mean to say that there were no agonizing decisions. My father and I had to decide, with very little cognizable input from my mother, whether she should undergo surgery to remove the tumor blocking her digestive system. If the surgery had been successful, and if everything else had gone better than expected, my mother might have had a long and happy life beyond her 54th year. But these were big ifs, and we knew that the downside risks associated with them were large, painful, and deadly.

The decision to refuse medical treatment that might help was hard to make. It was, however, of a completely different nature than a decision to hasten death by artificial means such as cyanide poisoning or suffocation.

For, in not fighting against an all-but-certain death, we were able to make my mother comfortable and allow her to say goodbye to almost everyone she loved. The night after she died we could sleep easily, if sorrowfully, for our consciences were clear and my mother was with Christ.

I hesitate to think about the despair that must surround that first night after a loved one's death has come about through assisted suicide.

Sadly, the federal court of appeals that decided Quill vs. Vacco, one of the assisted-suicide cases currently on review before the Supreme Court, couldn't see the distinction between murder and refusal of medical treatment. The supposed lack of any such distinction was the basis for the lower court's decision that New York's law against assisted suicide violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

Thanks be to God, I know better. Let us pray that those in authority over us are similarly blessed.

-Mr. Pickering is a lawyer in Birmingham, Ala.

John D. Pickering
John D. Pickering


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