Thursday, September 19, 2013

When to pull the plug—or should we ever?

Posted By on 09.19.13 at 09:32 AM

Stephen Hawking recently changed his mind about assisted suicide, and Steve Drake had something to say about it.
  • AP Photo/Evan Agostini
  • Stephen Hawking recently changed his mind about assisted suicide, and Steve Drake had something to say about it.

I've always respected Steve Drake's counterintuitive position on euthanasia—which is that "Let's put this poor, suffering soul out of his/her misery" usually isn't so much sensitive as selfish. Drake, who was born hydrocephalic, and whose parents were advised by the doctor who delivered him that they should keep him comfortable and let him die, is a research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a feisty disability rights group. When I wrote about him back in 2002 he told me he was bothered by growing support "for a new classification of murder called compassionate homicide." Whether you qualified depended on whom you killed. "You can only go for compassionate homicide if the victim is old, ill, or disabled."

Drake thought a lot of journalists, basking in their own high-mindedness, were especially eager "to identify more with the perpetrators than the victims." That was because "the perpetrators are more like them than the victims are."

The other day professor Stephen Hawking told the BBC that he's changed his mind about assisted suicide. Hawking, 71, has suffered most of his life from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Mindful of the time in 1985 when he had pneumonia and his then wife refused the opportunity she was given to turn off the machines keeping him alive, Hawking said his motto was while there's life, there's hope." But he finally thought twice. "We don’t let animals suffer," he told the BBC. "So why humans?"

Drake immediately jumped in. On the Not Dead Yet website he declared the familiar "we should treat people as well as we treat our animals" argument is a canard. We don't treat animals well, he reasoned: we pen them, butcher them, and eat them, and when we put our beloved house pets out of their misery, it's usually because they've become too much of a bother for us care for any longer.

"Most likely, if you were someone’s pet dog," said Drake, addressing Hawking, "they would have 'put you out of your misery' a long time ago, even if you didn’t feel particularly miserable."

Then Drake was interviewed by ABC News. He said that right-to-die laws "sold on the idea of pain and suffering" are "bad public policy." The reasons given for euthanasia "are things like loss of physical autonomy, fear of being a burden and loss of dignity," he said. "These are not medical issues, they are complex social issues."

If ever I could see both sides . . .

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