Argue against abortion, on the ground that it takes innocent life, and I have to say you've got a point. Argue that parents and physicians have no right to withhold treatment or nourishment from grotesquely deformed infants, and I will admit to desperately mixed feelings.
But argue that Elizabeth Bouvia does not have the right to die, and you lose me.
Bouvia -- you may have seen her recently on TV -- is a victim of cerebral palsy, degenerative arthritis and a medical-legal system that insists on keeping her alive against her oft-stated will.
The 28-year-old quadriplegic has been in and out of the news since 1983, when she asked a California hospital to provide her with painkillers and hygienic care while she starved herself to death. What she got instead was court-backed forced feeding. I think she got a raw deal.
No, I'm not making any quality-of-life judgments about this woman, whose physical ailments are not in themselves life-threatening. I'm not saying that anyone in her pitiful state should be "put to sleep." I'm not saying that her life of helpless dependency is not worth living. She is. And in my view, it's a judgment she has every right to make.
It may have been overreaching on her part to expect a hospital to oversee her suicide. But was it less so on the hospital's part to stick a tube in her stomach to force into her the nourishment she made clear she didn't want? The proper function of medical science, it seems to me, is to relieve pain, arrest disease and help people who wish to stay alive to do so. I can be convinced that that function can be reasonably extended to keeping alive people whose mental state makes it impossible for them to decide one way or another. But does anyone have the right, let alone duty, to keep people alive against their will?
I don't think so. Please understand that we are not talking about a suicidal episode, a fit of depression, which doctors are duty-bound to help a person work through. We are talking about Elizabeth Bouvia's decision, calmly taken and repeatedly asserted, to let her own life come to an end. The nature of that decision, and the way it was reached, puts it beyond the competency of doctors, lawyers and the public to judge.
Bouvia, who claims no right to ask doctors to end her life -- only to let her end it -- recognizes the agony her decision must cause many of those not directly involved. She understands the concerns of those who work on behalf of the physically handicapped.
"I am sure," she said, "that the disabled community is uncomfortable with my choice, because of their fear that my decision may have a negative impact on the future decisions of other disabled persons." She understands that some may be tempted to move from support of her decion not to go on living to a conclusion that the severely handicapped should be encouraged to end lives that we imagine "not worth living."
I recognize the danger. Still I find myself agreeing with what Bouvia said in a prepared statement during her right-to- die trial: "My belief is that all people, whether or not disabled, should be free to determine their own future -- personally, privately and indivdually."
I can understand arguments that, having taken her decision, she has no right to insist that others help her carry it out or to draw on scarce medical resources in the process. I can understand the wish of outsiders not to be involved in anything that strikes them as macabre. (I don't know how I would deal with the problem of someone wanting to die who lacks the physical ability to carry out that desire.)
What I cannot understand is why anybody would assume an obligation to prolong forcibly the life and the agony of someone whose considered wish is to end it. When philosophical decisions regarding the "sanctity of life" are transformed into extended torture, something has gone wrong.
I don't know what I might decide were I in Elizabeth Bouvia's dreadful circumstances. But I do know what she has decided, and I'm not prepared to say she is wrong.
As the movie of a few years ago put it, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" has decided, and I'm not prepared to say she is wrong.
As the movie of a few years ago put it, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"