Another situation like Terri Schiavo's happened in Florida last week. A New York man named Ted Stith died after 8 days without food or water in a Port Charlotte hospice facility. On the opposite end of the spectrum, officials at a detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba have been developing strategies recently to prevent detainees from engaging in suicide-bound hunger strikes.
A small newspaper in rural New York has followed the heartbreaking and cruel story of Mr. Stith's death. Mr. Stith, a 73 year old farmer, left his home near the Finger Lakes last month for a short vacation in Florida and while there suffered a stroke. His son immediately traveled to Florida and ordered that his father be given no rehabilitation, medication, food or water. According to reports, he then took his father's wallet and headed back to New York, leaving his father to die.
He did die. He died alone in a place far from home, and as he was dying, his son was auctioning off his belongings in the auction house that he owned and used to make a living. A place where he used to give to other families in need, especially through food donations. Read a complete story of his death, which includes links to previous stories.
In Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prisoners on hunger strike have been force fed through feeding tubes to prevent vomiting, and prevent their own suicide as a protest for their detention. The efforts have been successful, and the number of strikers has dropped from 84 to 4. Ironically, the interventions to keep these detainees from committing suicide has been called "most brutal and inhumane types of treatment" and "a disgrace" by a Washington based lawyer who is "representing" some of the detainees.
So, with this sad story of Mr. Stith fresh in my mind, when I heard of the hunger strikers, it was an occasion for reflection for me. The "quality of life" argument that is frequently used to justify acts of suicide, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide just doesn't seem to make sense anymore. How can one say that the quality of life of a prisoner is any better or worse than the quality of life of the elderly, a child with a disability or a child conceived despite the protests (ie, use of contraception) of his mother and father?
Yet, while selfish people are fighting to kill the disabled, elderly and unborn, US military officials are concerned that the detainees do not succeed in killing themselves. Who steps in to criticize? A silly group of lawyers who say that it is inhumane to strap down a prisoner to feed him. Did it ever occur to these lawyers that if the hunger strikers had succeeded in their suicide plans, they'd be out of a job? I guess so-called human rights are that important.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr. recently questioned the moral complexity of feeding tubes by saying, "Do you allow a person to commit suicide? Or do you take steps to protect their health and preserve their life?" Of course, Dr. Winkenwerder was speaking about the life of a prisoner, but what if physicians, families, social workers and other specialists had this attitude toward those who feel tempted or pressured to commit suicide or to allow euthanasia in the face of severe illness? Do we allow them to commit suicide? Or, do we preserve their lives?