Gloucester Daily Times Debate on Abortion (83), January 20, 1988

Life and Death Decisions

[Breakdown Lane Column]

(Regina Cole of Lanesville writes a weekly column for the Times)

It’s been 15 years since Roe v.s Wade. On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court decided that the state and federal government had no role in deciding a woman’s reproductive choices.

It hasn’t been an easy 15 years. Teen pregnancy has been rising steadily. Families have split up in record numbers. A sexuality-transmitted virus has changed the way we think about previously inconsequential behavior.

The groups that still oppose the 1973 Supreme Court decision often point to the frightening statistics as justification for their point of view. And it is, indeed, easy to see a correlation between a society that no longer adheres to long-held traditions, and a general decay of family structure.

But is important to remember that a government can no sooner make couples stay married than it can force teen-agers to abstain from sexual activity. The things that cause human behavior cannot be legislated. And we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Roe v.s Wade decision or night to carry a fetus to birth is no one’s business but her own. Least of all, it is the business of any legislative body’s.

A similar issue is making making bigger and bigger waves in medical and family circles. It is a product of ever-increasing sophistication in medical technology. And, instead of affecting only women, it may makes its mark n most of us soon.

As people live longer and longer, the very question of what constitutes life comes up more and more often. It is no longer a rarity for someone to be technically alive, but in no meaningful, traditional way. Old bodies can be maintained on life support systems indefinitely. Whether the person being maintained this way would want to be is an issue left to the family to wrestle with.

It must be one of the most difficult situations any family can possibly face. A beloved parent or grandparent can be terminally ill, suffering hideously, or in a coma with no chance of recovery. “Quality of life” is meaningless. In fact, the very question of consciousness, or will to live, comes up. And yet it is the sworn duty of the doctor to do everything in her or his power to prolong and maintain a person’s life. The patient can spend months, years, even, “living” only because of the apparatus he or she is attached to. Meanwhile, a family’s resources are consumed by a very sophisticated and expensive technology.

What does any one do? Does the family request the doctor to remove the patient from the life support systems? Does “pulling the plug,” as it has been crudely (and inaccurately) called, constitute murder? Perhaps the patient had what is known as a “Living Will,” which asks that he or she not be kept alive artificially. Is this legally binding? In most states, say the legal experts, Living Wills are not provided for by the lawmakers, and are questionable in even the ones where they are. And how does a family decide in the first place? Hoes can anyone decide at what point to terminate it for anyone else? Perhaps there is meaningful consciousness, even where there is no visible sign of it.

However a family deals with this painful issue, it is an intensely personal choice they must make. It has to be based on their own beliefs and on what the person in question would want. They can, and hopefully will, find help from their clergy. But at no point do I think that our government should be involved.

For, you see, when big, ambiguous moral questions enter into our lives, we have to wrestle with our lives, we have to wrestle with our beliefs, our ethics, our family traditions and with the circumstances of each case. To make laws govern behavior in such cases is to be tempted to easy answers, perhaps. But it would ultimately intrude government where it has no business being.

When life and death is not clean and simple, it can be ravaging. It can call into question our most deeply held beliefs. It can force the most painful decisions known.

But, ultimately, these are decisions that have to be made by the individual and by the family in each difficulty, isolated case.