She was a good woman, a devoted mother, and a devout Catholic. A stay-at home mom, she was a fierce defender of children and adored her grandchildren. She was incensed at the decision of Roe v. Wade, after having worked on a successful campaign to make abortion illegal in Michigan.
I loved her a lot. She was a good mom.
She suffered from Alzheimer's for close to twenty years. When she was pretty advanced in the disease but still able to talk she once said to me, "I just want to go home and be a mom." Yeah, that said it all. Her heart was in her mothering.
Fifteen years ago or so I wrote the following "Other Voices" column for the Ann Arbor News. At the time there was much discussion in Michigan about assisted suicide. Our state was unfortunately the site of Dr. Kevorkian's numerous murders in the name of compassion.
The essay was focused on this horrific disrespect for human life. But in my heart, it was about my mom. It was about the people who claimed that the value of a human life was variable and about the lies that they were telling. I was tired of defending my father's decision to treat her when she had pneumonia and his refusal to place a DNR (Do no resuscitate order) on her chart. I realize placing a DNR order on her chart would not have been unethical. But he felt it would lower the standard of her care and would not do it. I felt it was nobody else's business if my father's love for her was not in any way diminished by her incapacity. If he loved feeding her one meal a day, if he was more than willing to spend over $4000/month of his own savings to keep her in a nice nursing home, who was anybody else to suggest that he shouldn't.
It was in that context that I wrote the following:
The debate on assisted suicide has taken a chilling turn. The Ann Arbor News has suggested that under certain controlled circumstances doctors should be able to kill their patients at their request. Otherwise reasonable people have joined groups such as Merian's Friends which advocate the codification of assisted suicide guidelines. What is going on here? First those who would assign moral authority unto themselves convince us that an unborn child's life is worthy of respect and protection only if its mother deems it so. Are we now to believe that an individual's own life is also dispensable if the person simply so chooses? It seems that the abortion mentality has so undermined our respect for life that some have become immune to the horror of this suggestion.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian's own actions have demonstrated how this thinking progresses. He is now killing people who are not even terminally ill. And what is to justify the denial of assisted suicide to people in terrible emotional pain if it's allowed to people in physical pain. Why should it be allowed only for those near death? Should we not give the same "right" to those who would face years of pain ahead of them rather than simply months or weeks? Once we decide that man may decide when death should come, there is no stopping the horrific progression of this logic.
In the Netherlands voluntary assisted suicide has led to involuntary assisted suicide (murder) as demonstrated by the Remmelink Study. Some 1000 people were euthanized in 1991 according to this study. There are those who claim this is not morally objectionable because these people were very near death anyway, or in horrible pain. I maintain that every minute of every human life has inestimable value regardless of a person's condition or nearness to death.
Let us not mistake compassion for what is in reality our desire to end our own pain in seeing a loved one suffer. Compassion is being willing to watch a person in pain, to hold their hand and offer them comfort, and to affirm their worth as a human being in spite of their circumstances. When we say to desperately ill people that the taking of their lives is justified, we are lowering them to the level of common animals. Yes, it is compassionate to euthanize a suffering household pet, but should we regard the life of a human being as no more deserving of respect and protection than a dog or cat?
My own mother is in a condition that many people would consider to represent a very low quality of life. For the last six years or more she has been living her worst nightmare-- the development of Alzheimer's Disease. As her condition progressed we, her family, had to watch her terror as she slowly lost the ability to know where she was and how to take care of herself. Every single grip she once had on reality was taken from her and she was left panic-stricken. Sometimes she would ask hundreds of times in single day where dad was, what are we doing, where are the kids, etc. Dealing with her intense anxiety, her hostility, and her nearly constant tears left us almost as desperate as she.
Eventually she lost her ability to walk, to control bowel and bladder functions, and even to feed herself. Ironically she would sometimes ask us, "I'm not going to commit suicide, am I?" She wanted reassurance that those who loved her would never let her do such a thing, even if her suffering reached the point where she might desire what she would not otherwise ever consider.
Is her life without value? Certainly not. It has given me the opportunity to teach my children that all people, especially the elderly and infirm, should be treated with respect, regardless of their capabilities. I am reminded of the time when for the third time in a short while one of my children spilled a whole glass of pop on the newly carpeted floor of the nursing home where my mother resides. As I barked orders to get some paper towels and scrambled to get it up quickly I looked at my mother to find her laughing so hard she was crying. Her disease had given her a perspective on the situation that only the passage of time would give me.
Then there was the time a kind woman whose father was also on the Alzheimer's unit came up to my mother in her wheelchair and said, "You know, Helen, even though your life is the pits you can still make people happy with your beautiful eyes and your sweet smile. You can still give people joy." My mother who had always had a gift for hospitality and truly enjoyed making people happy, looked up at her intently. She no longer even knew her own name consistently, but she was clearly straining to bring the corners of her mouth into a smile, as a tear rolled down her cheek. It is impossible to determine what is the quality of life for an Alzheimer's patient.
Now my mother has lost control of nearly everything. she rarely recognizes me and has lost most of her ability to talk. Still, I would maintain that her life has worth. Every minute of every human life is sacred and belongs to God. He alone is its author and He alone has authority to end it. May my mother always be spared the "compassion" of those who would call themselves "Merian's friends." Some would say that my mother's life is without dignity. I do not. As long as the breath of life is within her she will have dignity because she is a precious daughter of the King.