Monday, October 20, 2003

Rights to living and dying

Is ceasing to keep someone alive the same as killing them?

If you didn't feed an infant, and it died, you would certainly be accused of murdering it. So, clearly, we have an idea that we ought to aid the helpless, if we are in some way responsible for them.

Mind you, we have the expectation that the infant will change and become able to help itself in time. I wonder how we would feel about infants if they did not. I should think we would reconsider.

The problem with cases where a person's life is maintained by machines is that it can be difficult to discern whether we are keeping alive someone who is alive, or actually keeping alive someone who would otherwise be dead.

Forget any particular case. It's far more instructive to think about this sort of issue in the abstract. But I do feel that part of the problem with the arguments for maintaining life is that they do not define what "life" is.

Say I were to have a heart attack and die (by which I am meaning that my brain dies), but Mrs Zen gets me hooked up to a batch of machines that keep my heart and my lungs pumping. I don't know too much biology, but I think I could then be kept "alive" with a feed tube.

Why does my "right to life" not oblige her to do that?

Isn't it arguable that refusing to use the machines, when you could do so, is equivalent to turning them off, when you have been doing so? How is Mrs Zen not "condemning to death" her hapless husband?

In the case of a foetus, the argument, as I understand it, is that the being must be maintained because it will develop into a human. This distinguishes it from a tumour, which can be cut out because it will not develop, and a cow, which, though it is alive, will not become a human. But is a person in PVS going to develop into a human? Surely they are just tissue, like a tumour?

I don't think there's an easy answer to the questions I'm posing. My own view is that we get too hung up on the distinction between human beings and other forms of life. This is largely a religious issue, and not being religious frees me to think about us as just being colonies of cells. Our sense of our own importance often leads us to losing compassion. In the case of foetuses, it seems clear to me that there is something living, but less clear whether it is distinct from any other part of the body it inhabits. At least until it can exist independently from the mother, I feel it probaby is not. I don't have any basis for my feeling, because, I think, there is not an answer to it - just your and my opinions. So, I think a woman has the right to do what she wishes with her own body. Since I cannot find a basis for distinguishing foetus from woman, you can see that I believe she has the right to terminate her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, until the foetus can exist independently (a thorny question, I know, when that is, when I have already mentioned that infants cannot truly do so). I have far more compassion for the woman than I do for a bunch of cells inside her.

Are we condemning PVS victims to death if we pull the tubes? I think they're just tissue. Compassion for them demands that they should be extinguished. But that's my feeling, YMMV, but it's always going to be feeling talking on this issue.

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