For most of my life, and for all of my thirty years as an experimental scientist, I scrupulously avoided my own personal and professional responsibility to attend to the dying. It is not that I had no chances to make the connection between science and dying; I simply chose not to take them.
During his last years I did not see him at all, and I did not understand that he was dying, for I already imagined him as dead.
My mother survived him, and in her last months, and even in her last days, she gave me and my family ample evidence of the difference between dying and being dead.
Hospice care is still controversial at many major medical centers today, for its goal is not to provide good treatment for the dying but to provide a good death.
The current hospital response of science to the dying reflects my own attitudes during those decades I worked in my lab.
In a society without universal health care, and at a time when the government and HMOs are increasingly concerned with cutting health-care costs to the bone, it would be surprising if those being "assisted" in their dying didn't turn out to include a disproportionate number of the poor and uneducated.
Peck's central objection to assisted suicide is that he sees both euthanasia and assisted suicide as "attempts to avoid the existential emotional suffering" associated with dying or a long debilitating disease.
"We have an enormous amount to learn from the process of dying a natural death.
By facing and moving through the existential suffering brought on by the losses of dying, we may, according to Peck, be able to resolve long-standing questions, become reconciled with our families, friends, selves, and our God, and experience profound spiritual growth.
Ira Byock makes a number of the same points in Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life (Riverhead Books, 1997).
Perhaps the most significant source of confusion for these individuals is the effort to make a moral distinction between withdrawal of life support systems (everything from ventilators to nutrition and hydration) and physician aid in dying, as proposed by the right-to-die movement.
One group of actions taken to bring about the death of a dying patient (withdrawal of life support, referred to by some as passive euthanasia) has been specifically upheld by the courts as a legal right of a patient to request and a legal act for a doctor to perform.
As proposed by right-to-die advocates, physician aid in dying is the direct prescription of lethal drugs intended to cause the death of terminally ill patients who request them and who meet specific criteria.
Reality dictates the necessity of such laws because, for some dying patients experiencing extreme suffering, a lethal prescription is the only way to end an extended and agonizing death.
The latest Gallup poll reveals that 75 percent of adult Americans favor aid in dying. This figure compares to 53 percent in a 1982 Harris poll and to 65 percent in 1988.