a duty to die

Twenty-five years ago, a much-younger I helped create promotional materials and messaging for a biomedical ethics conference here in Denver. Dr. Fred Abrams, one of the physicians whom I personally consider a saint–if stellar  Jewish guys can be saints–was among the international pioneers willing to ask hard questions and hear divergent opinions regarding the frontiers of health care. His was a magnificent, measured voice in a time rich with new technologies and old biases. And his desire to get people to challenge their personal thinking along with the status quo changed my life and my decision-making process.

On this particular occasion,Dr. Abrams had invited the past-governor of Colorado, Richard D. Lamm, to be a panelist on end-of-life decisions.  You may remember him as the man who sparked a firestorm in the early ’80s by suggesting we “have a duty to die” to make way for future generations. He later clarified that he “was essentially raising a general statement about the human condition, not beating up on the elderly.” The original statement read: “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.”  The national press, picking up on the story, nicknamed him “Governor Gloom”.

When Lamm expanded on his perspective that day at the conference, the message was anything but heartless. Which is why, I’m  sure, both the content and compassion of his words rushed to the forefront of my thinking during this week’s GOP candidate debates.

To meet the prospect of another’s death–even in the most theoretical and abstract–with cheers and applause is wrong beyond words. One day, the hearts in the same bodies whose hands were clapping will cease to beat. The circumstances leading up to their end moments is beyond our knowing. But something tells me that in the preceding hours or days or months, some human compassion will be desired.

I hope we haven’t killed it along the way.


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