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She Let The Tumors Eat Her Face

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Note: Steven Ertelt respectfully commented that the original version of this piece misstated his position, and upon reflection, I agree, and have re-written this piece to hopefully come closer to his position and make my objections clearer.

Chantal Sébire committed suicide by taking black market Nembutal in March of 2008. Before that, she had achieved notoriety by (unsuccessfully) petitioning the French president to allow her physician-assisted suicide. She suffered from the disease esthesioneuroblastoma, a disease that caused tumors to deform and destroy her face.

Pro-forced-life blogger Jill Stanek includes a post by Steven Ertelt about Madame Sébire. Back in April of 2008, Ertelt said that Mme. Sébire was properly denied PAS, and that we should limit our sympathy for her, because she refused treatment and voluntarily allowed the tumors to eat her face:

Well, now come to find out she a) refused medical treatment, b) refused offers of surgery to correct the problem and lead a normal life, and c) refused both drugs and palliative care to help her deal with the pain.

Sadly, this woman appeared to have a death wish and appeared more interested in promoting the pro-euthanasia political agenda than genuinely seeking legitimate medical care. . . .

Sebire’s situation was certainly heart-wrenching and she originally deserved all the support in the world, but these new revelations make it tough to consider her anything but a political opportunist. [Emphasis mine.]

A majority of people support a right to suicide for those with an incurable illness. Those with ideologies that favor forcing people to stay alive, no matter what their state, see their position threatened by this trend; indeed, Washington and Montana have recently joined Oregon in allowing so-called assisted suicide for the terminally ill. A great deal of the support for suicide rights for the incurably ill must come from people’s sympathy for the ill and dying – the empathetic response that if one were dying, or in Mme. Sébire’s condition, one would want the right to die, too. Support for a blanket right to suicide is much less common.

Ertelt wishes to challenge the empathetic response to Mme. Sébire, on the grounds that she was not really incurably ill. But I think Mme. Sébire’s case can increase ordinary, non-suicidal people’s empathetic understanding of the plight of healthy people who nonetheless suffer so severely that they wish to die. She wanted to die more than she wanted to live a normal life. Is that not enough to allow her to die?

How much would a person have to be suffering to willingly allow tumors to destroy her face, in the hopes that she could thereby achieve a peaceful death? How many people are there, right now, in this condition – healthy, but suffering so greatly that death is overpoweringly desired? Do we really want to force such people to stay alive?

Let’s say Madame Sébire really did refuse treatment for her tumors with death in mind. I have considered this horrible possibility myself, though with trepidation: if only one were to get a horrible disease, then they would have to give one Nembutal. Or one could refuse treatment and opt for palliative care, for the haze of morphine, ordinarily denied to a “healthy” person. But what if one were to get cancer and then develop a love for life and a fear of death? It is the most terrible thing.

But Madame Sébire retained her courage through Hell, showing us that it is possible, that the commitment to death is not necessarily a caprice.

No one should have to die this way. No one should have to let tumors eat her face in order to achieve a peaceful death. Peaceful death should be available to all those who are in such pain as to seriously desire it, whether that pain is physical or emotional.

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Written by Sister Y

December 12, 2008 at 7:27 am