Dignified Black Deaths Matter, Too: The Right to Die Law and African-Americans

Sunday, January 24, 2015

PART FOUR: Dignified Black Deaths Matter, Too

In the past decade, one of the most important civil rights battles has involved the ability of an individual to put an end to useless suffering when confronted with the checkmate of mortality. Conservative factions insist that self-determination should be insisted upon when it comes to economic matters, yet the same groups will all too often call for their moral choices to be imposed upon others in the realm of health care. The West Coast of the United States has been leading the way in promoting the right of an individual to give herself or himself the same degree of compassion that we would give to any terminally suffering animal, and the recently passed legislation in California will no doubt cause the smug self-righteousness of conservative institutions, such as hospitals run by the Catholic church.

Regardless of whether a single-payer system is put into place in the near future, the the sobering fact remains that the access that individuals will have to the “right to die” under this new law is a matter yet to be determined. Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times has written recently of the problems that patients have incurred at Catholic hospitals when a woman wants a tubal ligation. One of the questions that the PNHP website does not address is how to integrate an institution that is ideologically hostile to the needs of the population it would serve under a single-payer system. What will happen, for instance, when a terminally ill patient — who is trapped in a Catholic hospital designated as the only provider by her HMO — is not interested in being starved to death in a hospice, but instead adds her voice to the chorus of Kurt Vonnegut’s poignant question as he neared the end: “Can I go home now?”

(Let me be clear about one point: hospice care would claim that pain-killing drugs enable people to have all nutrition cut off and yet experience no suffering. Unfortunately, the accuracy of medical claims falls far short of the guarantee needed in such an intimate matter, and skepticism in regards to this claim by hospice organizations and their advocates is utterly justified.)

In enforcing the right of individuals to terminate their lives when pain approaches the point of intolerable duress, I can easily see a crisis looming for the baby boom generation. A lot of people are going to die in the next 15 years, and some of them will passionately yearn for release from their protracted suffering. What is completely predictable is that Catholic hospitals and the hospices under their control will refuse to allow doctors in residence to grant the legal wishes of their patients.

In countering this obstreperousness, one point to keep in mind is the all important exchange of money for services and where that money comes from. If Catholic hospitals accept any tax money whatsoever, then they need to bow to the rights guaranteed by law to all who have contributed to that tax system. In point of fact, this is one of the things that brought the integration of schools to a flashpoint at mid-20th century. School districts would accept federal money, for instance, that was given to them to sustain the education of the offspring of military personnel stationed in their districts. Often these areas loved the presence of the military, since their payrolls contributed to the local economy. The edge of that sword, however, was less welcome. If a school district accepted funds from the government to educate the children of military personnel, it could not then turn around and say that the African-American children of these soldiers and sailors could not then attend the same public schools as the children of white soldiers and sailors. In a similar manner, Catholic hospitals will have to get used to the idea that they cannot be exceptions to the rule of law and they will have to integrate their services with the rights of those who want to end their suffering.

Finally, my most profound concern about the enforcement of right to die legislation is how it might play out along racial lines. Given the disparity in treatment of African-American citizens by police forces in this country, one would be naïve to believe that such discrimination stops there. Hospitals run by the Catholic Church do not tend to be much different than most urban police forces: the hierarchy in the work force is largely white at the top and in the middle. As such, one is not unreasonably nervous in anticipating that white people in charge of caring for dying African-Americans might take it upon themselves to subject their patients to one final jolt of contempt and humiliation. (The presence of crucifixes throughout Catholic hospitals should suffice to remind us that Catholic hospitals fester with an ideology that valorizes suffering as a necessary component for so-called eternal salvation.) When baby boomer African-Americans, who somehow survived the gauntlet of random gunfire from any number of sources over the past several decades, finally arrive at the waiting area of personal embarkation, they deserve equal access to the “right to die” law. To assume that equal access to the right to die will of course be granted to African-Americans is as foolish as assuming that every African-African is treated by police officers with the same respect as Caucasian citizens. Black Lives Matter. Healthy Black Lives Matter. And Dignity in Death matters for Black lives, too.