When I was a kid in the sixties, the TV series Star Trek (1966-69) showed us glimpses of the world to come. Captain Kirk and his crew cruised the galaxy in their starship, USS Enterprise, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life, new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before. Along the way, they showed us some of what the 23rd century would have to offer: hand-held communicators, flat-screen television screens, talking supercomputers, energy weapons, and much more. A lot of these things have come to pass well in advance of the 23rd century, and some, like the ship’s faster-than-light “warp drive” engines, are on the drawing board.
But what about Earth society of the future? Yes, there would be all this whiz-bang technology, but what about the people? Our social institutions, our politics, our religious practices? What would they be like? Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, purposely stayed away from a lot of those specifics. At the time of the original series’ airing, the great struggle for political and economic supremacy on our planet was between democracy/capitalism and communist socialism. Roddenberry deliberately avoided making a statement, through his series, as to which side would win. Similarly, he didn’t want to speculate about such things as religion, although he did allow his characters to show us that racism and discrimination would be gone; his starship crew was comprised of all ethnic groups and both genders, frequently showing positions of authority being filled by people other than white males. In his followup series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), he went even further, giving us hints that Earth society of the future (by then the 24th century) had eliminated poverty and greed, and its economic system, although never described in detail, had even gotten rid of money altogether.
The world of Trek wasn’t truly equal, though, at least when it came to Starfleet, the organization that handled the space-faring and defense responsibilities of the Earth-based United Federation of Planets. There was a well-defined rank system among the astronauts, and every ship had only one captain. Things were never put to a vote; the skipper usually solicited opinions from his senior officers, but he (or she) made the decisions. Usually they turned out well, indicating that these men and women were indeed the elite of the officer corps, just like in today’s military organizations. (Most of them, anyway.) Competence and initiative were rewarded in the Trek world just like they are today, and indeed, like they pretty much always have been.
In The Next Generation, Roddenberry (who died in 1991) and his successors started weaving more storylines with contemporary, late-20th century allegories. Spin-offs of TNG included Deep Space 9 (1993-99) and Voyager (1995-2001), and even a prequel series, Enterprise (2001-05), based in the 22nd century. As the series went on, the writers felt more and more free to expand on themes that would resonate with contemporary viewers, and they usually did it very well, although there were some clunkers in there, as is to be expected. One episode from Season 4 of TNG, which airs nowadays on BBC America, caught my attention recently, as it addressed an issue that has been increasingly gaining attention in today’s America: assisted suicide.
A world where your lifespan is limited by law.
In “Half a Life,” the Enterprise, under the command of Jean-Luc Picard (who was the ship’s skipper during its entire series run) is sent to the planet Kaelon II, which has requested Federation assistance in a critical science project. Their sun is nearing the end of its life, and although its explosion is not imminent, the Kaelonians are worried enough that they have an elite team of scientists dedicated to finding a way to regenerate the star and thus avoid the evacuation of the planet’s entire population.
The lead scientist of the effort is named Timicin. Like most aliens on the Trek shows, he’s a humanoid, with only a few subtle differences between his race and Earthlings. Timicin’s plan is to inject a complicated chemical matrix into the star, which would alter its internal physics enough to spark regeneration. Every star has a lifespan; our own, Sol, is expected to last another 5 billion years or so. Evidently the Kaelonians’ star either has a much shorter lifespan, or the planet’s civilization was very late-blooming, as its technology is roughly equivalent to that of the Federation’s planets, and perhaps even a little behind, as they don’t have starships capable of reaching the star upon which Timicin is going to conduct his experiments. With the Enterprise providing transportation and technical assistance, Timicin is able to modify some of the ship’s photon torpedoes with his matrix. They’re fired into the dying star, but results are mixed. More research and experimentation is necessary before Timicin can produce a workable warhead that will save his planet.
But that will take time, and time, Timicin says, is one thing he does not have. No, he’s completely healthy, but he’s also approaching his 60th birthday, and that’s as much time as his society allows its people to have, no matter who they are.
Timicin is dedicated to his work, and what’s more, nobody else on his planet has his wealth of knowledge and experience in the project. To bring other scientists up to speed might take years, especially with him not being around to help. Thus, he asks his superiors for permission to delay his planned suicide, a ritual known as “Resolution.” But permission is denied; no exceptions are allowed, no matter who the person is. Lwaxana, who has fallen in love with Timicin, is outraged when he tells her that he must submit to his culture’s demands. It’s barbaric, she says, and he should refuse, not just because of the importance of his work, but because of the principle. Why should a perfectly healthy man be forced to end his life, just because of some arbitrary custom?
Why indeed? Because, Timicin says, long ago his society made a collective decision that the aged should not be allowed to be a burden upon the young. Like Earthlings, Kaelonians go into a gradual mental and physical decline as they age, with the decline starting to become more steep as they enter their sixties. Caring for the elderly had become more and more of a financial and emotional hardship for younger people, and so they came up with a solution: everybody pulls their own plug at 60. Whether you might have another 30-40 years of healthy life ahead or just a few is irrelevant.
Lwaxana confronts Capt. Picard and demands that he do something about it. He can’t, Picard says, because of the Prime Directive, which is Starfleet’s most important regulation: Federation ships and personnel are not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of planets. In Star Trek canon, this goes back to the early days of interstellar travel, when an Earth ship, covertly observing a planet with mid-20th century technology, intervened to prevent a nuclear exchange between warring factions. So, no matter what Picard might think of the Kaelonians and their Resolution–and he agrees with Lwaxana, by the way–he’s not allowed to keep Timicin on board.
But then Timicin, emboldened by his love for Lwaxana and his dedication to his work, asks Picard for asylum. Even if he can’t return to his planet, he will continue his work elsewhere and give the tech to his home world when he’s done. Whether they reject it or not out of spite will be up to them; at least he will have done his best to save his people. The request puts Picard in a bind, but one that he can deal with, thanks to a Federation policy that does indeed allow for aliens to be granted political asylum on board its vessels. Timicin reports his decision to his superiors, who respond as you might expect: they’re not at all happy, and to prove it, they send a pair of warships up into orbit to force Picard to turn Timicin’s request down and send him back to face his fate. What’s more, they declare that if Timicin manages to leave, they’re done with him and will not accept any further contributions of his work. As to the problem of their dying star, they’ll find some other scientist–presumably one with more than a few years left–to head the project.
The episode proved to be one of the most popular and thought-provoking of TNG’s seven-year run. Stiers was praised for his noble and nuanced performance, as was Barrett. The script was the first written for the show by Peter Allan Fields, who would later become a staff writer in Season 5. Fields, who died last year at age 84, contributed several more episodes for both TNG and Deep Space 9. At the time he wrote “Half a Life” late in 1990, Fields himself was 55, and some of the actors were nearing 60 themselves, including Barrett (58). Stiers was 48 and Patrick Stewart, who played Picard, was 50.
The script does not come to any conclusions as to whether Timicin makes the right choice. That is left to the audience to decide, and when the episode aired in 1991, it sparked a debate about the issue of assisted suicide and treatment of the elderly, a debate that continues to this day, nearly 30 years later. While that debate hasn’t been resolved–we haven’t made a collective decision to force our own version of “resolution” on our citizens–there are signs that we’re moving in that direction.
Kaelon II had come to the end of its slippery slope. Are we on ours?
The history of the Kaelonians’ process toward implementing suicide-at-60 was not discussed, nor were other obvious questions put forward. Timicin was probably not the first person to rebel at the idea of killing himself at 60. What happens to those who defy tradition and custom? If they hold out against family and societal pressure, what’s done with them? What about people who are not capable of undergoing Resolution voluntarily? Is the decision made for them, and if so, by whom? If the person has no immediate family, does the state step in and do the deed? Or is the state the only arbiter to begin with? The Kaelon government’s swift and harsh reaction to Timicin’s initial decision to request asylum and avoid his Resolution suggests that it is not just a cultural practice anymore, but one embedded in the law and rigidly enforced, even to the point of risking war over just one person.
There are other questions that naturally come up if a society adopts such a practice. If the whole point is to avoid the financial burden the elderly often impose on the rest of the population, what about those younger than 60 who are handicapped, to the point where they cannot support themselves? What happens to a healthy 30-year-old who has a car accident and becomes a quadriplegic? Or how about the 40-year-old who suffers a traumatic brain injury? Even if that person is able to work, his ongoing medical treatment will almost always be expensive, way beyond his own ability to pay. In our society today, those persons in unfortunate medical situations who have insurance still wind up paying high deductibles, in most cases, and the insurance companies’ increased costs in paying those bills are passed along to other, healthier beneficiaries in the form of higher premiums. And if the person is unable to get insurance, state-run options like Medicare and Medicaid are usually available, whose costs are borne by the taxpayers who are healthy and working. Healthcare, as we all know, is expensive, and somebody’s got to pay for it, a fact that often seems to be lost on people, particularly politicians.
But make no mistake, we’re moving in the direction taken by the fictional Kaelonians. Since the show aired in 1991, we now have nine U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, which allow physician-assisted suicide. The person must have been diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less to live. So far, only a few thousand people in those states have chosen to check out; Oregon, which has had its law in place the longest (since 1997), has averaged about one person per week.
Supporters of physician-assisted suicide are no longer even calling it that; instead, they want us to use the word “death” in place of “suicide,” presumably because it sounds a little less ominous. And they say that there is no such thing as a slippery slope, leading us inexorably downhill from this step toward policies that are more drastic, even sometimes using logic so convoluted that it seems to prove that there is indeed such a slope, even as they argue there isn’t. If there is a slippery slope here, they say, it isn’t “noxious,” meaning it’s okay, because where it leads us is where we should be going anyway.
Some advocacy groups are paying close attention, like the National Council on Disability, which notes in this report that these laws are now encompassing people whose illnesses and infirmities weren’t originally on the list of “accepted” reasons.
I’ve written previously about how other societies, in particular one in our not-so-distant past, practiced active euthanasia of citizens who were deemed a burden to the state, because they were disabled or elderly or even just members of a group the leaders of the nation didn’t like. Nazi Germany has often been cited as an example of how far we can go in that direction, and how quickly we can get there, if such things are allowed. A very costly war was fought to put an end to that, and yet we all know that World War II in Europe did not begin because the Nazis were rounding up their Jews and sending them to death camps, or implementing programs like Aktion T4. The Nazis exterminated millions of Jews, but what is less known is that hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, from elderly adults down to infants, were also terminated, just because somebody in authority decided they were a burden on the state. Suppose Germany had not invaded Poland in 1939? What if Hitler had kept his troops and planes within his own borders? Eventually, his policies toward Jews and other groups of undesirables would have become known throughout the rest of western Europe and North America. Would we have invaded Germany to stop it? History suggests we would not have gone that far. When the small African nation of Rwanda plunged into genocidal civil war in 1994, resulting in nearly a million people being brutally slaughtered, nobody did anything about it.
It gets personal.
In a perfect world, we would live full lifetimes, however long they may be, doing whatever we can to keep healthy and active until the day when the ticker inevitably stops. We would care for those who cannot care for themselves, all the while working tirelessly to improve quality of life, as well as quantity. On Star Trek, it was occasionally referenced that human lifespans had increased by the 23rd and 24th centuries. In the debut episode of The Next Generation, the android Data is giving a tour of the new Enterprise to 137-year-old Leonard McCoy (played to crusty perfection by DeForest Kelley), who was the ship’s surgeon during the original series. Living that long would be a reasonable assumption, viewers might think; medical technology would certainly improve in the next two or three centuries to give our descendants a few extra decades.
But our world is not perfect, and while people today can generally expect to outlive their grandparents–my newest nephew, born last week, will likely see the 22nd century–it can be a struggle for many of us to live our golden years in a healthy and dignified way. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, as in the case of the 80-year-old who is now suffering various maladies because he never took very good care of himself as a younger man. Other times, it’s cruel happenstance. How many times have you heard of a seemingly-healthy woman in her sixties suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer? And those of us who are younger and still healthy are finding ourselves having to care for our elderly parents, sometimes even when they don’t want it.
We’ve all gone through this, or know someone who has. I know a fellow my age whose father, in his mid-80s, has orthopedic pain to the point where he openly states his desire to just die and get it over with. The son has pleaded with his father to get up and move around, get active, embrace a better attitude. Like many men of his generation, the old fellow never followed any real kind of exercise regimen in his adulthood, once his years of high school and college athletics were behind him. An occasional round of golf just wasn’t enough. Now it has all caught up to him. But the senior ignores his son’s entreaties, and so the son waits for the phone call that will tell him his dad has taken a bad fall, or, worse yet, has gotten into a bottle of pills and put himself into a coma. It’s not a good place to be, for either of them.
So, should the old gent just be allowed to call his doc, get a prescription of suicide pills and be done with it? Or have someone come over and give him an injection? Many in our society say yes, sure, that’s what they’d want to have done for them if they’re in that situation. Others say no, it’s not right, and usually these folks argue their case from the perspective of morality brought on by religious beliefs.
Indeed, what does God think about this? It’s impossible to know, of course, but I remember the case of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, just before his 85th birthday. He had been in ill health for several years, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and osteoarthrosis, among other maladies. Certainly his final months, even years, were not physically comfortable for him. Yet, he did not do anything to hasten his own death. One could assume that if God does indeed exist–and I fervently believe that He does–then who would have a better insight into God’s will than a man who had served as one of the world’s most respected religious leaders for nearly thirty years? And yet John Paul did not take the easy way out. He hung in there until God called him home.
I don’t pretend to have the answer. Sometimes it seems cruel to keep people alive when they want to go. We are much more compassionate with our pets, many say, and indeed, like every pet owner, I have been through the terrible day when you must take your beloved friend to the vet so that she can begin eternal rest and gain relief from disease or the infirmities of advanced age. The only thing that keeps me going in those circumstances is my firm belief that God will reunite me with my dogs and cats when I am welcomed into His embrace.
A Christian, like John Paul II and my friend’s father, knows that whatever he must endure on Earth in terms of discomfort is only temporary. The Christian’s reward is in heaven, and if one must tolerate pain along the way, so be it. When you get to spend eternity in God’s presence, forever free from pain and suffering, want and need, what’s a few months or years of it down here? Is that too much of a price to pay? Christians believe their personal savior, Jesus Christ, endured terrible suffering on the Cross, agony much more painful than anything anybody might be subjected to today, and He did it willingly, to take our sins upon Himself and show us the way to eternal salvation. When Jesus was willing to take that upon himself for me, wouldn’t it be pretty selfish of me to take a suicide pill just to avoid pain that I know is only going to be temporary anyway?
I do believe that there is indeed a slippery slope, that once we allow the terminally ill to choose suicide, it’s only a matter of time until we get to those who aren’t terminal but who are in constant pain and discomfort, and from there it will go to those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and from there to younger people who are disabled. We already allow it on the other end, with social acceptance of abortion to prevent the birth of children who are diagnosed in utero with things like Down’s syndrome.
There are two questions I think we, as a society, must seriously consider: do we want to go any further down that path than we already are? And if we say yes, are we going to end up like Timicin’s fictional society, or like the one that really existed in Germany on our own world not that long ago? Proponents of what amounts to eugenics will say, “Oh, no, we won’t get to either one of those. You’ll see.” Well, as for me, I’d really rather not take that chance.