Between Life and Death

Not so long ago I was working on a master’s degree in sociology. Medical sociology interested me enough to take a course in it and also to work as a graduate assistant to one of the medical sociologists in the department.

Issues around human control of life and death (abortion, euthanasia, research into longevity) particularly interest me.

The Sociology of Technology and the End of Life
During the class I took, I had to write a term paper. I wanted to write about the effects of technology on the issue of euthanasia. For example, people in even the recent past could not be kept alive as they as they can now. You can keep a body alive long past the point at which consciousness ends. Similarly consciousness can still exist when the body is an utter wreck, incapable of communicating with the world around it. That sort of situation is bound to create new opportunities for society to develop its ideas about issues of life and death.

Alas, there wasn’t any research that directly applied. This would have been great if I were attempting to do a doctoral dissertation. Contributing new ideas to scholarship is the whole point of getting a doctorate. Unfortunately it’s not the point of a term paper. The point of a term paper is coming to understand other people’s knowlege. I ended up doing something more workable–a look at the demographics of who supports and who opposes euthanasia and comparing them to the predictions of sociological theory.

Euthanasia in Non-Industrial Societies
I won’t go into that here, but in the process of doing research I ran across an anthropologist’s article about issues surrounding human control of death. At the time, I found it interesting that non-industrial societies sometimes handled life and death in a very ruthless (if practical) way. Babies that made it hard for the tribe to survive were starved to death. Older people whose physical handicaps consumed too many resources were murdered, sometimes with their consent.

We don’t presently live that close to the edge of survival. We live in an age of relative plenty.

Modern Issues in Life and Death
For us the question isn’t “Will the effort of taking care of ‘Old Uncle John’ doom us to starvation this winter?” It is usually a question that’s more philosophical. We end up asking “Is this person alive or dead? Does turning off this machine end a charade of life or does it murder a living being?”

Oddly enough, we aren’t the first people to ever be in this situation. Death has been a subtle distinction from life for much of human history. In the past, of course, death was the more likely answer in cases of doubt. Lifesigns could easily go beneath a human’s ability to detect. It was possible to bury a living person and not realize it. On the other hand, someone whose lifesigns were that faint was unlikely to be healed at that level of technology.

One difference between the past and the present is that past societies often reached some sort of consensus about what death is, giving them a point at which they could stop worrying about a persons’s survival and move on to the process of grieving. Thanks to modern technology, however, we’ve opened up the process of death into a series of questions.

We can stop the process to a degree, giving a temporary resting point, potentially allowing people the time to heal, but also potentially uselessly delaying the inevitable.

And our well-intentioned medical professionals can only quote probabilities about what’s going to happen. They don’t really know for sure the results of this particular case.

Reaching a Modern Consensus

Thus the whole question moves out of science and into personal beliefs. Can you live with not giving this person who you love a week? Years? How long? At what point are you willing to give up? Are you ever willing to give up?

I suspect that our society will reach a level of knowlege and accumulate a series of traditions surrounding situations similar to Terry Schiavo’s, but we haven’t yet. Until we reach some sort of cultural consensus about the technological options surrounding death, we’ll be seeing families’ private struggles in the headlines.

Hopefully their struggles will help clarify the issues we face and bring us forward into clarity, but I’d rather they not have to face such tragic choices.

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