Bob Schmidt

Viewpoints: Assisted suicide could provide peaceful end

Published: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 12, 2013 - 11:40 pm

I have been a happy California resident for more than 65 years, but I recently began thinking that I might prefer living in Oregon, Washington or Vermont.

Those three states have physician-assisted suicide laws. California does not. There were reasons to think I might want that option to be available.

Earlier this year I had a stroke, a minor stroke that scrambled my brain more than it normally is. In addition to my brain deteriorating, my body is deteriorating, as is usual for someone my age, which in June became 85.

So I scheduled a doctor's checkup and found myself wondering if I were going to hear some unpleasant news from him. It occurred to me that if I were living in one of those three states, and my doctor was practicing in the same state, and I did receive unpleasant news, my doctor and I could then have a commonsense conversation about my future quality of life. And if I concluded that the future quality of my life was not inviting, I could decide not to experience it – with my doctor's help.

Couldn't happen in California. Not legally, anyway.

Some years ago I came across the writings of Xenophon, a contemporary of Socrates, who wrote about him, including "The Apology" in which he imagines Socrates explaining to a friend why he chose to die rather than live.

Socrates apparently had been a political thorn in the side of some Athenian leaders, so he was charged, prosecuted and convicted with showing insufficient respect to the gods and corrupting Athens youths to show similar disrespect, and sentenced to death.

His friends knew he was innocent and planned an escape, but he declined, and died by drinking the juice of hemlock.

Socrates' explanation must have made a considerable impression on me, because I thought of it again when I began thinking how I would react if the doctor gave me bad news. I prepared a message to my family, just in case.

I paraphrased some if it, but every point I made was made by Socrates, according to Xenophon. The material in quotes is from Xenophon; imagine Socrates is speaking.

"Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have, since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing that … this verdict of self-approval I found re-echoed in the opinion which my friends and intimates have formed concerning me."

That, fortunately has been my experience. How wonderful it is to know that I have had a good life, that the children I love have let me know that they love me, and that the friends I like and respect like and respect me.

Back to Xenophon and Socrates:

"I know that I cannot escape paying the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dullness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy of living?"

The death he has chosen, Socrates said, "is the gentlest of deaths … and will be one which will cause the least trouble to one's friends … and allow me to avoid my days wasted by disease or by old age, on which a confluent stream of evil things most alien to joyousness converges."

Turned out I didn't get unpleasant news from my doctor, but I am 85 years of age, and I will not escape paying the penalty of old age.

So certain was Socrates that the prospect of further joy was not going to be there for him, that he chose not to experience that future. I wondered if I would have the courage to choose a similar decision if I could not receive advice on how to achieve a gentle death.

Oregon, Washington and Vermont allow a physician to prescribe medication that causes death, but it must be self-administered, and the prognosis must be for a life span of six months or less. Physicians in Montana also can do that, as the result of a 2009 state supreme court ruling.

California does not allow a doctor to help a patient unwanting to experience the confluent stream of evil things most alien to joyousness and preferring to find a gentle ending of life.

It should.

Bob Schmidt was a state Capitol reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the San Jose Mercury News for more than 20 years. He is now retired.

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