Disputing Suicide Advocacy for the Sickly: A Model Essay in Developmental English Textbooks, by JD Meyer

“The Right to Die,” by Norman Cousins: Published by Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage

Originally published by Joffre (JD) Meyer, Yahoo Contributor Network Nov 7, 2011. Voices.yahoo will end tomorrow; a footnote was added.

Wordsmith-a Developmental English/Writing textbook by Pamela Arlov at Pearson Higher Education-includes “The Right to Die,” by Norman Cousins as one of its model essays in the Argument (Persuasive)/Social Issues categories. This essay is about the suicide of Dr. Henry Van Dusen and his wife, Elizabeth. They had become increasingly feeble over the years and felt that their lives were being prolonged artificially beyond human dignity. Importantly, Dr. Van Dusen had been the president of Union Theological Seminary; he was a famous voice in American Protestant ethics for over a quarter century-hardly your typical case for suicide advocacy. The caption under the article’s title states, “Suicide is traditionally considered a tragedy, even a sin. Under certain circumstances, can it be considered a triumph over a slow and painful death?”

An Internet search shows how popular this article has become. McGraw-Hill offers the essay through Primis On-Line and Cornerstones. The Familiar Essay, by Mark R. Christensen includes “The Right to Die also through Cengage. Cyberessays reports that the states of Washington and Montana passed a Right to Die law in 2009.

Dr. Van Dusen left behind a brief note asking if the individual has the obligation to go on living when all beauty, meaning, and power of life are gone. Isn’t it a misuse of medical technology to keep the terminally ill alive when there are so many hungry mouths to feed? What if there’s nothing left to give or receive from life? Why should an unnatural form of living be considered better than an unnatural way of dying?

Exercising free will can mean suicide, according to Dr. Van Dusen. A call for the exercise of free will is quite common in philosophical and theological literature, and Dr. Van Dusen wrote on free will extensively during his career. Despair and pain weren’t given as reasons for The Van Dusens’ justifying of suicide.

Importantly, Norman Cousins admits that suicide is alien to the theological tradition of the Van Dusens, as it is in most cultures. However, no comment was made in this article about the kamikaze phase in World War II Japan or the current Islamic extremists. The Van Dusens regretted that their children and grandchildren may be saddened and not accept their decision. Yet Dr. Van Dusen believed that theologians and all of us should debate his case for suicide for the terminally sickly.

In concluding, Cousins asserts, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. The unbearable tragedy is to live without dignity or sensitivity.”

My initial reaction to this essay was shock that assisted suicide for the sickly would be a topic in a Developmental English or College Composition course, as opposed to maybe an advanced medical ethics or philosophy course. I wouldn’t risk the appearance of trying to euthanize the grandparents of remedial students. Having a disability for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) myself makes me a bit squeamish when I hear a call for suicide of the chronically ill.

Once suicide is approved under these circumstances, the cases for acceptable suicide could become extended. What if one felt he or she was too poor to have a dignified existence? The extremely poor can earn as much as $1000/month. Maybe the chronically unemployed or those with a flawed background check could make a case for their own death too. An elderly neighbor feels that there are two unforgivable sins: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and suicide. Fortunately, the former seems like the most unlikely and esoteric possible form of swearing. My neighbor’s views are probably considerably more common than advocacy for suicide of the sickly.

On another note, adding mullein leaves (gordolobo) to my coffee pot this morning has helped my breathing far more than traditional medicine over the past week–including albuterol for my nebulizer, generic Mucinex, and prednisone. There were also some eucalyptus leaves and whole garlic pieces in that odd drip coffee bin, which had been ineffectual without the gordolobo. At least in Texas, you can buy a package of gordolobo or eucalyptus leaves for $1 each in the Mexican spice and herb section of the grocery store.

Later I stumbled upon a story about the later life of Norman Cousins (1915-1990) at http://www.happinessandlaughter.com/ Norman Cousins was the longtime editor of the Saturday Review and had received hundreds of wards, including the United Nations Peace Medal and nearly fifty honorary doctorate degrees. But in 1965, Cousins became very ill with ankylosing spondylitis, “a degenerative disease causing the breakdown of collagen.” It was believed that the writer would die within a few months, and he was almost completely paralyzed. But Cousins found a way to cure himself, not kill himself; he checked out of the hospital and started taking massive amounts of Vitamin C and watching funny movies! Cousins regained the use of his limbs and he returned to his full-time job at the Saturday Review. Cousins later wrote a book on his ordeal, Anatomy of an Illness in 1979. Thus Cousins chose life over suicide unlike Dr. Van Dusen. I’m glad that Earvin “Magic” Johnson chose life, as today is the twentieth anniversary of his announcement of retiring from pro basketball due to contracting the HIV virus.

Footnote: Originally, I wrote this article for Voices.yahoo, which is discontinuing its services as a citizen journalism website on July 31, 2014. At final count, my 38 articles gained 23,869 reads in roughly six years. This article represents revenge for being told never to disagree with anything in the textbook by a couple of short-lived bosses, as well as not to teach subject-verb agreement for indefinite plural pronouns (others, both, many, few, several) because Wordsmith omitted them. However, a few months before writing this article in early November 2011, I had sent an op-ed to a news station called, “Could Assisted Suicide Lower the Unemployment Rate?”
Fortunately, I changed my mind and have since gotten on Medicare & Medicaid–together with receiving housing assistance. Lately, I go to food banks instead of receiving Meals-on-Wheels. My Subject-Verb Agreement chapter section has received well over 9000 reads through Connexions of Rice University and my Academia.edu website. I’m a Twitter fanatic @bohemiotx with over 1400 followers and a member of two community organizations: East TX Human Needs Network (ETHNN)and the Community Health Worker (CHW) coalition…and hoping for a second career. I’ve never had more wonderful friends, and most of us see each other at Stanley’s Famous Bar-B-Q of Tyler–a regionally known place just two doors down from my apartment in the Hospital District, also known as Midtown.

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One thought on “Disputing Suicide Advocacy for the Sickly: A Model Essay in Developmental English Textbooks, by JD Meyer

  1. Pingback: When Diversity Faces Reprisal: Threats to Sustainability in Composition, | bohemiotx

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