Guest Opinion: ‘Quality of life’ judgment leads to slippery slope

My friend Bryce has a great sense of humor, tons of friends and an encyclopedic knowledge of American Indian and modern jazz history. But before he was born doctors told his parents that he would live in a vegetative state — if he lived at all — and that the pregnancy should be terminated. They were given pamphlets that described “smart” parents who killed their babies in the womb because their children would be born with spina bifida and would suffer a poor “quality of life.” Thankfully, his parents ignored that counsel and today, 27-year-old Bryce is happier than most people I know.

Another friend, Brian, was working away at a logging site, eagerly anticipating his upcoming wedding. Accidentally, he doused a burn barrel with what he thought was water. Instead it was fuel that exploded in his face and robbed him of most of all four limbs and his vision. During his recovery at a Portland hospital, some doctors were reluctant to help him because they insisted that Brian would suffer a low “quality of life.”

Thankfully, other doctors carefully fulfilled their calling to help. Brian’s fiancé followed through on her promise and today Haley and Brian have two others-centered teens and an 8-year-old and a huge role in encouraging hundreds of others through difficult circumstances even as they navigate their own.

I’m apprehensive about responding to the Kaiser Health News story about the elderly Portland couple who purposely ended their lives simultaneously (“It meant so much to know they were together,” March 11) rather than continue life with symptoms of prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and heart problems. After all, their sad 1,300-word narrative is stacked with glowing qualifiers that make any objection seem mean-spirited. The husband and wife were “pretty well informed,” he was a “former medical missionary” and a “respected physician,” they’d been married 66 long years, they had “no regrets” and did it “all legal.” How could anyone suggest that a story so heartbreaking, almost poetic — is wrong?

Because I have dealt full-time with families in crisis for more than 30 years and observed dozens of deaths along the way, I understand this couple’s fear of being alone. While I’m grateful for the benefits of modern hospice care, I don’t underestimate their dread of suffering. And certainly I appreciate the concern of their children for them, having walked long and challenging but precious paths with my own deceased parents and in-laws to their natural deaths.

At the same time, the last line of the article is frightening. The wife is quoted as saying, “We have a faith that says life is not to be worshiped. It’s the quality of life that counts.” That’s huge: Once you have decided that there is any such a thing as a life not worth living, determined by someone’s decision about quality of life, all kinds of questions are raised. Who decides where the lines are drawn? German Aryans had one idea about the value of some lives over others and perpetrated a Holocaust from their base in what was arguably Europe’s best-educated and most-sophisticated nation. Planned Parenthood has another idea and millions of children are dead as a result. Bioethicists are actually suggesting today that we kill persons with disabilities.

And on the “quality of life” view, why not? Why not kill persons with disabilities, chronic depression, addictions? Should we stop celebrating heroes who intervene with bridge-jumpers? After all, it’s their choice. And why not kill my friends Bryce and Brian? Their lives do present some challenges, and come with costs: we could all save some money.

I shared the article with many of my friends who deal with disability, potentially fatal disease, chronic sickness and more, and it fell on all of them the same way: hard. Like so many others, when you’re a mother of a beloved adult son with a disability and you’ve had to justify his continued existence even to friends, family, and some in the medical community, you become acutely aware of how short is the line that connects the story of that couple and your child.

This is not overheated rhetoric: It’s bigger than one long-married pair choosing to hasten their deaths. It’s a large problem, and it’s looming here and abroad. In Iceland, for example, babies with Down syndrome are being totally eradicated. On the “quality of life” view, this makes dollars and sense, but makes me fear for my buddies David, Braelynn, Jonathan and many others who may have little choice in the matter.

On the “quality of life” view, the slope is very slippery.

Dale Meador is pastor of Bear Creek Church, chaplain of the Medford Police Department and a volunteer with Joni & Friends Southern Oregon.

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