The Good Death
S.Q. Lapius stomped into the house caring half the slush of the city with him. He shucked his galoshes in the foyer, hung his dripping coat and hat over the rack and minced into the kitchen, to emerge eventually with a cup of tea. He set the cup on the end table near his recliner and returned to the kitchen, this time emerging with a jar of honey from which he ladled two teaspoons of the rich goo into his cup, persuaded somehow, that it would not add to his ample girth.
“The honey dissolves, Harry,” he said, in anticipation of my comment, and as if his explanation explained anything.
“I take it the Ames girl died,” I said. I didn’t have to be told, since it was only after an emotionally exhausting day that Lapius replenished his drained feelings with tea and honey.
“Yes. Not only did she die, but I was interrogated by the administrator as to the cause of her death.”
“But it was leukemia, wasn’t it?”
“Of course it was. But at the end she was anemic and hemorrhaging, and losing vision in her left eye and very frightened, so I gave her some morphine. The nurse on the case refused to give it. Said it would kill the girl and she wouldn’t be party to euthanasia, and when I gave the injection, she reported me to the administrator.”
“Will anything come of it?”
“Possibly. They will probably bring the case up at the quarterly meeting.”
“Well, you didn’t commit euthanasia, and even if you did, it’s becoming the vogue now. You read about it all the time, like you used to read articles about the propriety of abortion before that became legal.”
“Of course, Harry,” Lapius said, sipping gingerly at the steaming tea. “In the strictest sense I did commit euthanasia. I tried to assuage the pain and fears of the little girl so that she could die comfortably. That’s all that euthanasia meant originally, as defined by Karl Marx, not the communist, but the doctor of the same name who lived 50 years earlier. Euthanasia means the good death. Only in the last half century or so has the word been interpreted to mean mercy killing.”
“But in fact, Lapius, didn’t the morphine hasten her death?”
“Who knows, Harry? I gave her a dose that would not kill a normal girl. But possibly the dose would hasten the death of a child as sick as she.”
“I guess there’s a fine line between ‘good death’ and ‘mercy killing’. Do you think they should legalize euthanasia, Simon?”
“No I don’t think they should legalize euthanasia. I didn’t think they should legalize abortion. I don’t think that society can sanction the taking of a life and still remain intact.”
“But don’t you occasionally put someone out of their misery, by either an act of commission or omission?”
“Don’t be coy, Simon. You know you do. We all do.”
Lapius nursed the tea thoughtfully. He was reluctant to get drawn into this controversy. Finally he looked up. “To be frank, Harry, if I were forced to make a choice between abortion and euthanasia, I would choose euthanasia. After all, the being that is aborted is fresh, with the potential energy for a full and productive life locked up in its genes. The sick elderly person has already spent his treasure of life’s vital forces. Even if his life is saved, he can’t be reconstructed. The best we can do is to return him to some stage of useless chronic disability. Now I am against all forms of killing, mind you, but given a choice, society would be better off choosing euthanasia over abortion.”
“But society will have its way, Simon. They will, you know, have both abortion and euthanasia before too long.”
“I am afraid you are right, Harry. But it is a grievous error.”
“But you admit Simon, that sometimes a doctor does give a drug or withhold an antibiotic to hasten death.”
“Of course we do.”
“Well, how can you admit that and still be against it.”
“I am against institutionalizing it. I am against including permission to kill in the statutes. I am against having the right to life or death put into the hands of some administrative group who will make decisions from a distance. An individual can do certain deeds in the privacy of his conscience that society can’t afford to do.”
“But if you do it as an individual it is still murder.”
“Yes Harry. It is still murder, if you will. The individual will have to take the risk of being appropriately punished by his Gods, his conscience or his peers. But once society agrees to take a life there is no countervailing force. A nation can’t permit itself to sanction the taking of life for good cause, because it soon may make laws permitting the taking of life for frivolous causes, or no cause at all.”
Lapius stopped talking suddenly. I looked over at him. Tears were rolling down his check.