More relevant than ever to ask: Whose life is it, anyway?

August 23, 2007|By Anita Creamer

Slowly but surely, the political and emotional conversation about the issue of life has begun to shift from the realm of birth control to death control.

But maybe the fundamental question remains the same: Who's in charge of our lives, anyway?

It's the baby boomers' fault, of course: That generation, still largely concerned with aging cute and looking young, is only now beginning to comprehend what it means to grow old with dignity - and to die with dignity.

We like to kid ourselves that we'll be able to control what happens.

When you've watched a parent fade away from Alzheimer's-related dementia or another terminal disease, you know better. And so you find yourself contemplating quality of life instead of quantity of years.

Five million Americans have Alzheimer's disease today, according to the Alzheimer's Association, but without cure or prevention the disease will affect 14 million people in this country by 2050.

Maybe we can all manage to dodge those odds, as well as the increased incidence of Parkinson's disease with age, the half-million annual deaths from cancer and, for that matter, physical suffering of every possible variety.

Or maybe we'd do well to think about the issues now. Jay Averill has.

At 74, he's retired and living in Roseville, Calif., near one of his daughters and her family. But he saw what his parents went through: Before his mother died several years ago at age 93, he says, she was physically incapacitated and suffering from dementia.

"She begged me to kill her," he says. "She said, `I can't live like this.'

"And what could I do?"

Nothing. Of course not. But it's interesting to consider how long Americans will be content with that answer.

Since 1979, according to the Field Poll, Californians have consistently expressed strong support for assisted suicide - allowing the terminally ill to end their own lives through lethal medication.

Early last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. More than 200 terminally ill patients have made use of the law's strict provisions to end their lives since Oregon voters ratified it in 1994 and 1997.

But similar, more recent California legislation hasn't been as successful, despite the fact that the Field Poll says 70 percent of Californians support the idea of allowing mentally competent, terminally ill adults to decide for themselves when they're no longer willing to go on living.

Death with dignity, it seems, is easier for most of our politicians to swallow as a slogan than as a reality.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

We choose up sides when extreme and highly publicized cases come along - when Jack Kevorkian was on trial for ending lives in the 1990s, for instance; or even more appallingly, when poor Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who languished in a vegetative state for 15 years, became a political pawn in 2005.

It would be a shame for good people trying to do the best they can for themselves and their loved ones if the debate over the end of life were to devolve into the polarized deep freeze that's long characterized the debate over the beginning of life.

"You don't read about these things," says Mr. Averill. "But I feel strongly that people should be able to choose to end their lives in a dignified manner.

"I imagine the religious people would be up in arms about it. But nonreligious people still have some say-so in the world, too."

As do those who believe that God granted human beings free will because he wanted them to use it.

Anita Creamer is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Her e-mail is

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