In 1973, a 25 year old unmarried man was on site for his real estate job. When he started his car, it ignited natural gas that had been leaking from a buried pipeline. Donald (Dax) Cowart received second and third degree burns on over two thirds of his body, one eye was destroyed, the other could have vision restored, his limbs were horribly disfigured, but he was still alive.

His recovery would take 14 months, and they would be incredibly painful. Dax would have to be dipped in antiseptic to guard against infection. After this would be the dressing and bandaging of his wounds, basically his entire body. All of this was extremely painful to Dax, even under high doses of pain medication. However, all of this was to ensure his survival. Without this treatment Dax would die.

Dax asked on numerous occasions that the doctors end the treatment prematurely and allow Dax to die. He wished this for a few reasons.

  • The pain was quite intense and he wished it to end.
  • His legs were disfigured barring him from the althetics he once enjoyed.
  • His only 'healthy' eye only had a chance of recovering sight, and he didn't want to live blind.
  • He figured that his life, his right.

    The first three reasons are easy to challenge. Dax was in a lot of pain. So are cancer patients, people in homes for the elderly. We don't go around routinely killing off cancer patients or old people because they desire death. Why should Dax be different? Go to any hospital and you will invariably find people in pain, but are we willing to let them die because they want the easy way out?

    Dax's life after treatment would be that of a blind cripple. He wanted to die because he didn't want that life. My cousin didn't want to become a paraplegic, but now he is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He got by, and loves his life. Doctors didn't let him die. How many blind people are there in the world? I don't have any stats, but I'm willing to be there are quite a few. My point is that there are many people who live with blindness and wheelchairs their entire life. Dax put himself on a higher platform thinking he would rather be dead than be a blind cripple.

    The issue of his rights is a ethical debate. Dax could not take his own life. In fact, he attempted this three times with no success. For him to die he needed the assistance of his doctors. The doctors have a responsibility to see to it that patients get better. Death is seen as a failure, not as a justifiable end. Therefore, the doctors would not willingly stop treatment and allow Dax to die.

    There was a big debate over whether Dax was thinking clearly. Here was a man in a great deal of pain, after being severly burned, in mental shock, and wanted an escape from his pain. It was argued that Dax was nothing thinking rationally and therefore not of sound mind to render judgement. I would argue the same. Dax was under a lot of pain which affected his judgement. He obviously didn't want the pain, and death seemed a welcome alternative.

    As for an ethical debate, Kantianism removes the right to die. This would violate the categorical imperative of promoting life. Utilitarianism would have a problem. How would the doctors and Dax's family feel with the loss of Dax? Also, applying the priciple of utility to Dax, would his death be happier than the happiness of the rest of his life? After his treatment would be over, Dax could live a very happy life. Dying would have less pleasure than the end result of finishing the treatment. As it stands, Kantians and Utilitarians would both condemn the right to die.

    The end result was that the doctors forced Dax to undergo treatment. Partial vision was restored in his one remaining eye. At present, Dax loves his life. However, he is on a speaking circuit telling people that while he loves his life, he still thinks he should have been allowed to die in 1973.

  • Perhaps the most controversial thing to be asserted as a fundamental right, the right to die -- to voluntarily choose to terminate one's own life -- presents a question, itself fundamental, of what it means for man to be free while at the same time existing to some extent as an organ of society. This has been brought to the fore in recent weeks by the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who took to the usual social media outlets to explain her decision to face down an incurable brain tumor by peacefully taking her own life before the tumor took it from her painfully. Maynard presented an odd juxtaposition. She looked young and healthy, but described her ailment and the suffering it inflicted upon her to the last detail.

    The pure libertarian view on this is that, as to a person who is legally an adult and of sound mind, the right to end one's own life is as absolute as the right to decide to have raspberry jam instead of strawberry on one's toast in the morning. But there are, obviously, additional complications arising from that notion. For one thing, as Joseph Heller poignantly outlined in Catch-22, being of sound mind is often equated with the desire to live. In the book, the opposite formulation is presented -- the man who wishes to be deemed insane to escape a cycle of hazardous wartime duty is told that his very desire to avoid those hazards is what proves him sane (perpetuating his exposure to those hazards). Conversely, the immediate reaction of many in society to a man's desire to die (even an elderly are gravely injured or disabled person) is that their predilection in that direction signifies their lack of mental capacity, justifying the removal of their own decision-making authority. Piled upon this is the condemnation of suicide as found in many religions.

    Brittany Maynard, being a Californian at the start of her story, had to move to Oregon to approach her demise because (for all its reputation as a bastion of liberality) California is one of those places which still treats the desire to die as not only an insane thing, but a criminal one for any who would assist the would-be life-ender. But in Oregon, death (for a terminally ill person) may be helped along by a doctor. Maynard's decision for a physician-assisted resolution of her terminal condition was, unsurprisingly, slammed as "reprehensible" by the Roman Catholic Church (oddly the same church that effectively murdered Savita Halappanavar by refusing her a life-saving abortion, and so remains in an odd place to comment on morality).

    But to a degree, the determination of all men to avoid death is, as well, simply a fearful rejection of the baseline reality that everybody does, that millions of people die every day, and that it is our inevitable lot to follow them, whether in a year or in fifty or eighty or a hundred. Like Hugh Jackman's character laughingly realizes at the end of The Fountain, his quest for immortality is futile: "I'm going to die!!" Shakespeare puts it more poetically in MacBeth:

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

    We are all going to die. Through the butterfly effect, we may know that a world where I die tomorrow will eventually be fundamentally different from one where I die after twenty-thousand tomorrows, but we can't know whether it will be for the better or for the worse, or simply different. All we can know is that death is inevitable, and some people make clowns of themselves by trying to stave it off longer than realism would allow, and others make bereavers out of their loved ones by pulling it in when they could have experienced so much more of life. My own feeling on this is that we are free within the walls of our own lives to make mistakes, as simple as putting the wrong jam on our toast and as complex as ending our lives earlier than they might have on their own. But to this I will add, when the choice is between death, and needless suffering (ending in death), there seems to be no logic to prohibiting or condemning the person who skips the needless suffering part.

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