Framing the deaths of children

March 1, 2010 | By | Reply More

An article at MSNBC caught my eye. The title: “Doctors hastened dying kids’ death, say parents.” My initial reaction was that the doctors had done something bad. The article turned out to be more nuanced than the headline, but the opening paragraph suggested that some doctors were acting nefariously:

It’s a situation too agonizing to contemplate — a child dying and in pain. Now a small but provocative study suggests that doctors may be giving fatal morphine doses to a few children dying of cancer, to end their suffering at their parents’ request.

But then I thought, what if the opposite were true?  And then what if the opposite headline read like this:

A provocative study suggests that some doctors are refusing to give enough pain-relieving morphine to children dying of cancer, thereby exacerbating and extending their horrific suffering.

My point is not just to be provocative.   Before going further, I should disclose that I am the parent of two young (healthy)  children, so this horrid situation is something that I find extremely uncomfortable to even contemplate.  Nonetheless, what would I do if I had a a child who was writhing in pain, and who had only weeks or months before he would die?  Would it really a bad thing to give that child more pain medication in order to lessen his pain, knowing that it would shorten his already terribly shortened life expectancy?

I am amazed at how Americans make simplistic cartoons out of so many moral dilemmas.  We call it “mercy killing,” even when the aim is to reduce suffering.  I would never criticize a parent for wanting to relieve a child’s suffering by giving pain medication when that child is dying of cancer.   Maybe we need a new language to meaningfully discuss this situation.  How about calling it “relieving the suffering of an innocent child.”  Why call it “killing” at all?  Why even call it euthanasia (literally, “good death”)?

When a child is being non-stop crushed with pain, what kind of parent enhances the pain by withholding drugs in order to attempt to display an incredibly shallow version of moral superiority to others in the community?  Shouldn’t the whole focus be what’s best for the child?  Is it better for the child to be in excruciating pain, every hour of the day, or to be given relief from the pain, even though it shortens his life?  I know that many people disagree with me–they think that any wretched existence is superior to the end of one’s earthly existence.  Ironically, most of those people believe in an afterlife.   I don’t get it.

When we’re dealing with the family pet, everyone knows the answer.   We call it being “humane” to the pet when we choose to painlessly put the pet out of its misery.  But somehow, when we are being “humane” to humans, we intensify and extend their suffering.  What’s driving this upside-down logic?  Are the critics merely having sport with doctors, most of whom are working extremely hard to give the families what they need and want?

This issue is not limited to dying children, of course.  Hence the moral second-guessing when sick elderly adults choose to die in far off places like Switzerland.

There are many other ways to needlessly kill healthy children and to make them suffer and to deprive them of healthy minds, but we don’t use the word “kill” when describing legislation that does this.  You know . . . legislation that cuts medical care, closes subsidized daycare, fails to fund nutrition education centers, or allows bad schools to continue to operate. Perhaps we should use the word “kill” in those situations, since that word often provokes people to take action.

But I also think that we need to jettison the “kill” language for those gut-wrenching situations where children are dying and parents are struggling to figure out what to do. We should start over when an entirely new language devoid of the word “kill,” because it is the disease that is killing such children, and the parents are trying to deal with the disease.  Only with a new language with a more thoughtful version of causation is worth of such situations.


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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Medicine

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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