J. R. DAVIS: The Right to Die (1976)
Review by Michael Edwards
In some ways, this is not a particularly remarkable novel, and it is certainly by a completely obscure writer, about whom I know nothing whatever - not even whether the author is male or female, nor even whether he or she wrote anything else. I cannot find any Internet references at all to this author or to this book, and the only reason I have a copy of it is that I found it by chance in a second-hand book-shop.
However, it is unusual in one interesting way: it is the only novel I know of which deals explicitly with the subject of euthanasia, or mercy-killing, in which I have an interest; and I wish to discuss it for that reason. (My own views on euthanasia may influece the way I discuss the book. I will not go into that here, but do explain my views after the review.)
The story is fairly simple, actually: an unconscious girl, Mary Beth McKuen, is brought into the emergency section of a hospital in Pine Hills, Connecticut, and put on a respirator. It is too late, though, and severe brain damage has already occurred, apparently resulting from a massive overdose of alcohol and amphetamines. However, the respirator keeps her breathing, so she is still alive after a fashion, although the doctors all agree that she has no chance of ever coming out of her coma; and, if she did, they all agree she could only be a complete vegetable, with no quality of life.
Mary Beth's family grieve, and lose hope that she can ever recover, and they come to regard her as already dead, although electroencephalograms do indicate a very low level of brain activity, and she does make occasional slight involuntary movements in her coma. They decide to petition a law-court for guardianship of her, which they don't already have, because she is legally an adult; once they have guardianship, they intend to direct her doctors to remove the respirator, so that she can die naturally. They are counselled by their priest, a Roman Catholic, who assures them that this is entirely in accordance with the Church's teachings.
The case comes to court and is a three-way battle between three parties: the family, petitioning for guardianship and permission to remove the respirator; the prosecution, whose role does not seem entirely clear, unless it is merely to see that the relevant laws are observed; and the public defender, appointed to protect Mary Beth's right to life. The court scenes do not have the drama and subtlety of legal argument found in many books of this type, but are quite adequate to highlight the various arguments for and against euthanasia being applied in this particular case.
As the case proceeds, we hear, via the questions posed by the lawyers to various witnesses and their answers, the various arguments for and against the form of euthanasia that removal of the respirator would constitute. We also get glimpses in the personal lives and thoughts of the various characters, including the lawyers and trial judge. It transpires that Mary Beth has been living with questionable people with underworld connections, but this angle is not developed much in the book, and seems to be little more than a convenient reason for her to have taken an overdose of drugs. In general, the book tends to lack the twists and turns many novels have, and largely follows its course of exploring the issues around euthanasia. Given that I find this interesting, I do not mean this to be as much of a criticism as it may seem to some.
Some of the characters are not characterized in great depth, and some may find them to be slightly too much like cardboard cutouts, although perhaps not entirely. Occasionally, the author merely states that a character has a certain quality, rather than describes it. For instance, the narrative says that Judge Vincent Blair is a compassionate man, rather than showing him behaving compassionately. The novel appears to be intended mainly to outline the basic issues involved in euthanasia, rather than to explore characters in great depth. For this purpose, the characters are quite adequate, and some background and inner thoughts are given, so the lack of great depth in portraying them is not really obvious, and does not bother me unduly. In this era of the extremely-long novel, it seems to me that a far commoner fault in books (as I sometimes see it) is exhaustive, if not excessive, delving into the past history, interests, acquaintances, innermost thoughts, and other aspects, of characters, to the point of boredom.
Obviously, I do not always find great depth of characterization to be excessive, and it can be quite riveting when done skillfully. But sometimes I do find it excessive, and in those cases I can find myself yawning my way through page after page, unwilling to skim over it lest I miss some piece of apparently unremarkable information that later turns out to be crucial. Sometimes even these cases are probably done very well by a good author, and for some reason I just don't resonate with those particular characters or the way they are explored. Perhaps it is a sign of my own lack of understanding of the subtleties of human nature that I am more likely to find this a problem than lack of depth in characterization - but that's the way it is.
This book is rather short by today's standards for novels: a little over 200 pages, which would have been about the length of a standard novel for the time it was written - namely, 1976.
(What puzzles me about novels today is this: it is often said, to the point that it is a cliché, that most of us are busier than ever, and we live much higher-pressure lives today than we ever did before, and are far more time-poor than ever before; yet the standard length of a novel has vastly increased over the last couple of decades - even though one might wonder whether many people have as much time to read novels now as they did before, especially with television competing more than ever before for one's limited time. However, regardless of this, it seems that a standard novel in the 1960s or 1970s was somewhere between 100 and 200 pages, and 300 pages or more would have been unusually long, although by no means unknown; yet now, 200 pages would be regarded as rather skimpy - and the standard, although perhaps a bit more variable now than before, seems to be 300 pages at the very least, and more usually around 400 pages or even more. And the books of many prolific and well-known authors such as Stephen King or Dean Koontz have steadily grown in size as their careers progress.)
The writing in "The Right to Die" is not remarkable for its style or power, and it is occasionally a bit clumsy or naive; but, opposing this, it is clear enough, and very readable, and slight touches of naivete do not bother me nearly as much as does the learned obscurity found rather more often in modern novels, especially in some very lengthy, deep ones.
What is slightly more bothersome is that a few times the viewpoint changes abruptly from one character to another, sometimes even in the middle of a paragraph; however, this is not frequent enough to be a severe flaw. It did force me once or twice to backtrack to get my bearings, after being brought to a halt by intruding thoughts of, "What is going on here?" What was going on was that I was now suddenly privy to the thoughts or experience of a different character, although there were no cues in the text to signal that that was happening. It is quite acceptable in novels told from what writers call the "omniscient third person viewpoint" to change viewpoint from one character to another; but it is usual to signal this by starting a new section marked by an empty line between paragraphs, and sometiems also a row of three asterisks or some other similar typographic device.
The issues which might be deemed relevant to various positions for and against euthanasia are exposed clearly and in moderate depth. It should be noted that the arguments explored relate only to passive euthanasia, because that is what is at issue in this book: the arguments given relate to this particular case, not to euthanasia as a general issue.
According to the terminology used by people involved with euthanasia (for or against), active euthanasia is the administering of a substance to kill a patient, or supplying the patient with anything by which he can kill himself; however, passive euthanasia is simply the withdrawal of treatment (which is sometimes taken to include artificial feeding or hydration by means of a tube), so that a death which would happen naturally otherwise duly takes place. To put it simply, active euthanasia is a positive act to end life, whereas passive euthanasia is simply the withholding of treatment.
The two are treated quite differently by the laws of many countries: while there may be variations from one country to another, the common pattern is that the former is usually illegal and regarded as murder, whereas the latter is tacitly condoned if there is no evidence of malice. Sometimes the withdrawing of treatment is explicitly allowed by law, especially if the patient or ntext of kin have clearly expressed prior wishes to this effect while competent; and it is quite common, in murder trials arising from active euthanasia, for juries to acquit an accused where the action was obviously done out of compassion.
Increasing doses of painkillers or similar drugs to relieve suffering, even though it is known that it is likely to hasten death, is a bit on the edges, but seems to be mostly accepted as passive euthanasia. In such cases, the extremely legalistic question of whether the intention of administering these drugs was to end life or relieve suffering takes on great importance. This is not an issue in this novel, however.
Only passive euthanasia is involved in this novel, which does perhaps limit its scope as an exploration of this issue - an issue explicitly dealt with very rarely in novels. I think most people would agree that active euthanasia pushes the limits of the complex moral issues involved in mercy-killing far more than does passive euthanasia; so a novelist who wishes to fully explore these issues to the limit would have done better to write a novel dealing with active euthanasia.
Insofar as I was interested to read a novel exploring these issues at all, to my way of thinking this is something of a shortcoming, or at least a limitation, in this particular novel.
One interesting issue that was explored, however, was the issue of consent: because the patient is unconscious throughout, she cannot request that the respirator be disconnected; so the issue of whether she consents, or can consent, to this becomes an important issue.
I cannot discern from this novel whether the author is for or against euthanasia, and the arguments for or against seem to be presented fairly and clearly. When the judge gives his decision, and certain events flow from that at the very end of the book, I cannot tell whether the author went this way because it was his or her own view of euthanasia, or whether it was simply where he saw the greater dramatic potential for the end of the story.
I have strong feelings about euthanasia, which may have influenced the way I have discussed this novel; therefore I wish to be transparent about exactly where I stand on this. For the record, I am a strong believer in the right to both passive and active euthanasia, provided that the patient has clearly expressed a desire for this, and believe this consideration should outweigh most, if not all, arguments against it.
If the patient cannot express a desire to die (for instance because he or she is an infant, is unconscious, or is too disabled to communicate), I think there are circumstances, even so, where a compelling case can be made for non-voluntary euthanasia for reasons of compassion; but I do admit the arguments are far murkier here than in a case where death is clearly desired by the patient. I would not want the complications involved in these difficult cases to stand in the way of euthanasia being allowed for the unambiguous cases where the patient makes it clear he or she wishes to be helped to die quickly and painlessly.
The opponents of euthanasia may be right to some degree in their "slippery-slope" arguments: namely, that, if you allow euthanasia in any degree at all, no matter how compelling the case, you open the door to all manner of abuse that could never be controlled by any conceivable laws. I do not agree with this point of view generally, and believe that appropriate laws allowing euthanasia can be properly framed; although I suppose any law, however well-framed, can conceivably be abused at least occasionally. Yet the fact that it is possible to cheat at gambling, the stock market, or whatever, is never used as an argument for making those activities completely illegal.
So, for the sake of argument, let's grant the possibility that, if laws allowing euthanasia are passed, they may be abused, and murders may sometimes be committed masquerading as euthanasia. However, I believe that this has to be balanced against what is already happening under the present system, in which euthanasia is not allowed at all. It is arguable that the present arrangement leads to as much suffering as would allegedly occur if euthanasia were allowed - more suffering, in fact. The way things currently are, people who are in a lot of pain or frailty who don't want to remain in that state are nevertheless forced to live on and on and on, regardless of their wishes, because, although they are without hope of ever recovering from their illness or incapacity, death often takes a long time to come, and the lead-up to it can be riddled with pain or helplessness or indignity. Some patients may die slowly by degrees, literally over many years. Some such people desperately want to die and escape their torment - yet they cannot do so because of our blanket ban (at least officially) of mercy-killing.
To my way of thinking, this is just as much an abuse of basic human rights as would the occasional involuntary euthanasia (that is, murder) which might be done by use of laws allowing euthanasia. In fact, I consider the suffering of termilly ill people forced to continue living to be a far worse infringement of human rights than these occasional murders which the opponents fear. I simply cannot think of anything more evil than forcing people to continue living in pain and suffering, against their will, of denying them the one thing they want, the only thing that can provide relief for their suffering - suffering which may be inconceivable to anyone who has not themselves experienced it, and amount, in its effects, to a form of severe torture.
I acknowledge all the complex arguments involved in this issue, and concede that some (but not all) of the "anti" arguments actually do have validity. However, my stand in favour of euthanasia is, in the end, based on the conviction that the urgency to relieve unbearable and otherwise unavoidable suffering, whether physical or mental, in those who wish to die outweighs these other considerations.
If there are any other novels that explicitly deal with euthanasia in some depth, I would be very interested to read them, and, if you know of any, I would be grateful if you could please let me know by e-mail. (Please remove the spam block from the "To:" line.)
If you wish to read my discussion of the outcome of this novel, please follow this link to my Spoiler discussion page (where the crucial points to various books are discussed). Please do not do this if you have not read the novel but wish to, or if you don't want the outcome of the book to be revealed. The link goes straight there; there are no more cautions or prompts.)
Click here if you need an explanation for the strange appearance of the e-mail address which will appear when you click on the e-mail link, or if you don't know what you need to do to make the e-mail address work properly.
Original text copyright (C) 2003, by Michael Edwards.
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