Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Evolving Nature of Death

For early man, death was often brutal but generally quick. The frail and injured were culled by predators, infections rapidly progressed to sepsis and an acute insult, such as a heart attack or stroke, was a death sentence. With the rise and advance of medical science, we have gained the ability to prevent many diseases, treat most illnesses and offer a vast array of life extending devices; as a result, human life expectancy has greatly increased but the course of dying has been significantly prolonged.

In recent decades, a general enlightenment has spread throughout human cultures and the concepts of refusing resuscitation, foregoing aggressive care and opting for hospice services have taken hold. Nevertheless, large numbers of brain damaged patients, victims of congenital defects, trauma, stroke or dementia, lie in hospital beds for years or decades, subject to indignities that we hope never to experience. Currently, offering them a quick exit from that existence is not acceptable to most humans, a reflection of religious conviction and social pressure.

While governments, insurance agencies and medical facilities should never force a patient's family to proceed with humane euthenasia, it should be an option when the hope for meaningful recovery has passed. I have no doubt that human society will evolve toward the acceptance of that approach; we already provide this humane intervention for our beloved pets and, once human culture is free of the guilt imposed by religious mysticism, we will extend that empathetic service to our fellow man.