My Turn: As I walk with cancer, I hope New Hampshire is a ready for a respectful discussion about ‘death with dignity’

  • Should people nearing the end of their life be able to choose how and when they die? AP file

For the Monitor
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Life is full of many passages that we enter and pass through.

Just as cats are said to have nine lives, I believe I have known as many – and perhaps more. My lives have included youth, family life, significant life relationships, work life, church life, life in multiple geographic settings and now life as the wise ole guy, “Mr. Jim.”

Often I have shouted out that my lives have been blessed and thanked God for my natural gifts. Themes and living into clear value sets have marked my life. This would include gratitude for the models of my parents to be in service to others, as Saint Francis of Assisi would pray to be an agent of love, care, compassion and mercy to the least.

So, here in this present passage, I am engaged with my “walking with cancer.”

It has been a couple years living into what lies ahead and sustaining a level of quality of life through my ongoing chemo cycle. “Remission” and “survival” are not words in my walk, and terminal is a path up ahead over the hill and into a glen of unknown beauty.

Presently, I am able to walk on good days, play golf on good days, render volunteer service with young, old and homeless, enjoy my dear friends, connect with my family and my church family. Life is good.

My cancer is not a dreaded development. Rather it whistles about me that I have been alerted to prep myself for what lies ahead. I repeat, what lies ahead. I hear my inner whistle: Is there an “ahead”?

Death with dignity

Many years ago I pondered the concept of “death with dignity.” The notion of being able to exercise “choice” about the closure of my life found acceptance in my personal value set, and now decades later it sits aside me.

This choice is not dark or secretive. Rather it shall be a choice that has been shared with loved family and friends. The transparency and shared process of end-of-life choice is in strong contrast to the behavior known as suicide.

Suicide is a dark and secretive behavior, and as a retired mental health professional, I know firsthand the pain and angst of survivors, with the unending question of “what if” and overwhelming self guilt.

Death with dignity, or end-of-life choice, is a courageous act of personal spirituality. In my view, attempts to cloak choice as immoral is testimony to others who come from a different perspective and set of values. Personally, it rings loudly and joyfully of my readiness for what lies ahead and for thankfulness for what life has gifted me.

Recently, I discovered Byron Chell, a retired philosophy teacher and a teacher of bioethics, and author of the book Aid in Dying. Digesting his thoughts and observations reminded me of my collegiate struggle with a required ethics class in my undergraduate studies. What is right, what is wrong? It is an eternal challenge as civilization grows and new insights, new human contexts are explored.

Currently, within our country and global fabric, we are faced with emerging diversities and subtle shifts in cultural norms that challenge our daily living relationships. People of widely varying cultural backgrounds, and even those of common cultural experiences, greet one another in the arena of life with seemingly oppositional value sets upon which they make choices and determine their course of behavior.

Chell cites a colleague, ethicist H.T. Englehardt Jr., who writes of the ethic, “the morality of mutual respect.” In effect, my understanding is that in the face of different ethics or sense of right and wrong, based upon different value sets, there then must exist as a right a moral respect for the difference.

In signing California’s recent enabling legislation for end-of-life choice, Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in substance: Though I am not sure what decision or choice I would make, I wish to affirm others the right to make their personal choice.

SB 426

In these next months, our state of New Hampshire will look at proposed bipartisan legislation, Senate Bill 426, to stage a full conversation and study about end-of-life decisions. Though this issue is strong in my heart and soul, there are many other state issues of justice, of service to addicted citizens and also the presidential parade across our granite state. The noise and buzz of other state, national and global issues may drown out the conversation of end-of-life choice. I shall do my best to reach out and galvanize our talk. Only through talk and conversation are we able to respectfully hear the stories of others and find a place of moral respect – and the conversation goes on and on.

It is my wish that any conversation be filled with respect for opposing views, to truly hear the personal stories of citizens, caregivers and medical providers. A current buzz word is “stakeholders” and their voices and presence shall be represented in any commission of study. Then there is an at-large family of “stakeholders,” those who are walking with cancer and other terminal health conditions, and those caring for their terminally ill loved ones. Their voices are less orchestrated, yet their stories are critical.

It is also my wish that any conversation will include valuable search and review of states where legislation has been passed, and what data and experience these existing statutes can offer.

The conversation also needs to listen to concerns for potential abuse and vet a system where proper safeguards are developed and reviewed based on experience.

My ears are open to any and all who wish to shout out and support the concept of personal choice.

So, I repeat: My ears are open. Please let your ears be open. Stay tuned to the conversation. Come forward and participate in the conversation. Let your presence shine in any hearings. Pass information along to others in your circles. Like in the Native American life of yore, send your smoke about our white mountains and granite hills, circling along the rivers, down in the valley and softly landing about us.

The SB 426 creates a study commission to explore end-of-life decisions. There will be hearings in the Senate chamber, and, if passed, then on to the House and repeated hearings. A while back, I attended as an observer a joint public hearing in Massachusetts on the proposed bill to enact a system of end-of-life choice. Many personal stories were shared from many different experiences.

Though the outcome is not known at present, it was nice to observe the presence of respectful conversation.

(Jim Kinhan lives in Concord.)