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Lions Roar : July 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN jULy 2009 85 Would You Help Your Parents End Their Lives? reviews iN the lAst gooDNights, John west, at the time a seattle-based lawyer, recounts how he assisted the suicide of both his parents ten years ago. west’s father, Jolly, was a renowned psychia- trist at uClA, and his mother, known affectionately as “K,” a respected clinical psychologist at the veterans’ hospital in west los Angeles. Jolly was diagnosed with bone cancer at age seventy-four with a terminal prognosis of a few months, at a time when west’s mother, aged seventy-five, was suffering mid-stage Alzheimer’s, aggravated by emphyse- ma and osteoporosis. they had been married more than fifty years, though not entirely happily. soon after the diagnosis, Jolly said he had no wish to linger on, possibly in pain, and asked his son whether he would assist his suicide when the time came. John west immediately agreed and began to make preparations during the frequent trips he made from seattle to l.A. to be with his parents. After a fruitless attempt to seek help from the hemlock society, father and son decided to use an overdose of barbiturates issued on prescription for pain relief. early in the new year, on his return home from a stay in hospital—and after moments of tragicomic drama in find- ing a pharmacy that had sufficient tablets in stock—Jolly ingested them with his son’s support. Jolly passed away in his sleep, and a death certificate was issued by the family doctor. No suspicions were raised and no inquiries were made by the authorities. the remainder of the book, occupying by far the greater part, recounts the progressive decline of K and her own decision to end her life through assisted suicide. this was apparently becom- ing a family tradition, since Jolly himself had assisted the sui- cide of K’s mother, harriet, some twenty-five years before. once again, west agreed to help, and supported his mother through visits and phone calls during her remaining time, before assist- ing her with a fatal overdose on the fourth of July. As before, the manner of death raised no suspicions. K’s medical condition, personal and family interactions, and the minor details of daily life are recorded in the form of a diary. in west’s view, the “right to die” is an unmitigated good that is self-evident and apparently needs no defence. As a progressive liberal, he assumes that the right to die is simply another per- sonal freedom that will, inevitably, be won in the same way that reproductive and other rights were. for him, there is no conten- tious moral issue here, just the opposition of closed minds to the march of progress. in occasional asides, the familiar reasons in support of the right to die are mentioned—autonomy, mercy, and dignity. Approving mention is made of the Netherlands and oregon, although his actions would have been illegal in both jurisdictions, which permit only doctors to assist suicides. yet, the ethical and public policy debate about whether to change the law and professional ethics to permit physician-assisted suicide raises many profound and complex questions, not least about the value of life, of autonomy, and the protection of the vulnerable. Jolly had a terminal illness, whereas K did not. K was not dying; she was simply confused and depressed. one has to ask whether a pa- tient in this state is capable of making an objective judgment about suicide. even if we assume K was capable, many others are not. illustrAtioNBytoDDDAViDsoN,ptyltD/theimAgeBANK/gettyimAges The LasT GoodniGhTs assisting My Parents with Their suicides By John west Counterpoint, 2009; 272 pp., $25.00 (cloth) REvIEWEd By daMIEn KEOWn