Thursday, January 19, 2012

Georgia: Response Letters to op-ed by Final Exit Network (FEN) president Wendell Stephenson

On January 7, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an op-ed by Wendell Stephenson, current president of the Final Exit Network (FEN).  "Ensuring death with dignity" is no longer freely available at the AJC site, but the same essay was published in December last year in the Metrowest Daily News and can still be read here.

It's the usual conflation of terminal illness with chronic illness, sensationalist language describing FEN members and supporters as victims of oppression, etc.  This blog will probably be revisiting Stephenson's piece in the near future.

In the meantime, his op-ed drew some strong reactions that were published in the letters section of the AJC on January 15.  There were three letters - the first one agreeing with Stephenson and the following letters  disagreeing with him.  The letters can all be found on this page.

The first of the two taking issue with Stephenson and his op-ed was written by Eleanor Smith, a long-time disability rights leader and activist who is the founder of Concrete Change, an international network whose goal is to make all new homes visitable.  Her letter:

Right-to-die argument blurs a key distinction

“Ensuring death with dignity” (Opinion, Jan. 7) blurs the distinction between the freedom to end one’s own life, which cannot be denied, and the freedom to have others end one’s life, which endangers the lives of people less valued by society.

The elderly couple referred to in this column chose to inform their assisted-living facility of their intention to starve themselves to death (which the administration, unsurprisingly, could not support). They could have chosen instead to check out of the institution for a short stay with their children. I suspect organizational (rather than personal) advice led to this public confrontation.

Older and/or disabled people can be expensive to support. It is reprehensible to select them as the population encouraged to die before their time — rather than supporting them to live and making them feel welcome in the world.

Eleanor Smith, Decatur
The next letter was from Jennifer Hale, executive director, the Georgia Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.  Her letter:

Final Exit leader’s essay ‘inherently misleading’

The piece by Wendell Stephenson of the Final Exit Network attempting to link the philosophy of hastened death and assisted suicide — or, as he terms it, “self-deliverance” — with the ideals of dignity at the end of life provided through state-licensed and federally certified hospice care providers is absolutely wrong, inherently misleading and seems mildly predatory from my perspective (“Ensuring death with dignity,” Opinion, Jan. 7).

At the Georgia Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, it is our mission to provide education, information and advocacy to the public and to providers of end-of-life care to raise awareness of the options available to every person and improve on the quality of that care. Nowhere on the Final Exit Network’s website could I find where there was any support for families.

The couple mentioned in this piece made a decision about how they wished to spend the end of their lives. Hospice did not help them make this decision and did not help them carry it out. Hospice helped them return to their family’s residence and provided them with physical and emotional support and ongoing bereavement care for the family.

Jennifer Hale, executive director, the Georgia Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
Hale's letter opens with a strong and harsh assessment of both Stephenson and the Final Exit Network.

It's too bad that her concluding words contain a glaring contradiction of her claim that hospice played no role in helping the couple in question "carry out" their death through starvation and dehydration.  When she says that hospice gave the couple "physical and emotional support," that means they facilitated the process - at least to the extent that they made the couple as comfortable as possible and as free from the more unpleasant sensations of starvation and dehydration as they could manage.  That is a lot of help.  Similarly, I have concerns that "ongoing bereavement care for the family" means helping everyone in the family feel OK with themselves for their own sanction and support of the couple's long suicide through starvation and dehydration.  That, too, is a lot of help.

Maybe Ms. Hale could take a second stab at clarifying what hospice is and is not.  Because this last couple of sentences didn't help me at all.  --Stephen Drake

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately one of the uglies of the organic nature of language is that through uncompromising repitition of words,people experiment with death. Again and again, newspeak is with bee hive synchronicity emoted in slogans by the culture of death. The idea of death as medicine to which we all have a fundamental right of access is pretty well already culturally tolerated as manageable. On the surface it sounds good, but indeed with scrutiny, it doesn't hold up. But gee, if someone dies prematurely, give excuse to make them "comfortable." What if the decision is agonizng for social workers or a rogue nurse? Is it right action to deliberately speak of the hard cases as firewalls to any further "complicated allocations of resources." The jilted girlfriend didn't want to really kill her ex-boyfriend, and she really really "agonized" over it, so it's ok, I guess. No? Well at worst it is one of those unavoidable, tragic anomalies. Right? Sure.. Why not pass off the guilt on those who aren't actively responsible for such bright ideas. Disability advocates shouldn't accept one jot of euthanasia mentality. They lose any pro-life sympathetic who may one day activate within a generation or two while the terminal can be saved. --Erin Myers