My grandmother recently died. That was sad for those of us who loved her, but no great surprise. She was 88, in failing health, and she had had a good life.
But the process of her dying was perhaps unnecessarily difficult. She had a massive stroke which destroyed her left brain hemisphere. Her wishes for a situation like this were very clear, both in terms of explicit paperwork and statements to family and friends. She did not want heroic measures to keep her “alive” in a situation where her quality of life was to be negligible. So we took her home, arranged for hospice care to keep her as pain-free and comfortable as possible. And then we withheld all food and water, and waited out the week or so until she slipped away.
My family is not religious. (You can get some diffuse newagey supernaturalism, but not much.) My grandmother herself was a thoroughgoing nonbeliever. And it did come up in conversation, after it became clear that her stroke was devastating, leaving no hope of any kind of recovery, that some kind of euthanasia would have been the best option. That was the view of my grandmother about such situations, and her explicit preferences for herself in case such an event were to happen. That was what her husband, and all the family thought. But this option was not legal. My aunt even remarked that we were allowed to treat animals more humanely than humans in end-of-life situations in the state of California.
Now, I am not a bioethicist. I have some awareness of debates over euthanasia and terminal situations, but no expertise. It’s possible that there are compelling secular arguments against euthanasia, though I have not encountered them. Furthermore, it’s possible that even if euthanasia was the best option in my grandmother’s situation, it would be a bad idea to allow it as a matter of general public policy. I am inclined to think otherwise, but I could be persuaded I am wrong. But I am convinced that the rationale for most existing relevant laws in the United States does not really turn on secular considerations. At heart, there’s a religious conception of humans behind our laws, whether it comes down to explicit considerations about the soul or fuzzier pronouncements about “human dignity.”
I resent being subjected to such a religious view of life and death. My grandmother’s quasi-alive last weeks were gut-wrenching for the family, but that’s not something I can complain too much about. I can’t demand that death be easy. But I still resent that my family, who has nothing to do with organized religion if we can help it, were so constrained by what I suspect are religiously motivated concerns.