Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston, scholars from the Hastings Center, have written a thought-provoking commentary published in Time.com. The article speaks about researchers currently developing a test to predict whether a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease. The test will be used to predict the disease before it sets in, and long before the person shows any signs of the disease. The article addresses the many moral dilemmas that the patients, and the families of the patients, will have to face in light of this new test. It also talks about the difficult decisions that will result from the expanded availability of legalized assisted suicide in light of the new information.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, so early detection provides little else but more time for families to plan for the disease. Wouldn’t our time, money and research be better spent finding a cure for the disease than providing a prediction with little benefit?
Parens and Johnston state that, “One of the prices we pay for our new powers of prediction is difficult conversations about still more difficult choices.” More precisely, once people know that they will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, they will immediately begin the emotional torment of what to do about it.
Some people who test positive would instantaneously begin contemplating or planning suicide. The positive diagnosis of the future disease alone would cause such heartache. Depression could reasonably result from such a diagnosis. There are so many saddening and worrisome factors to be considered with a positive Alzheimer’s diagnosis – the fear of losing yourself, the fear of not knowing your loved ones, the unwillingness to burned loved ones with the emotional and financial toll of the disease. Such a test could lead to many people planning and requesting assisted suicide before the disease even sets in, to avoid the entire disease at all.
Parens and Johnston point out that “… people who test positive cannot know with certainty what Alzheimer’s will be like for them. They cannot know whether the disease might actually bring a new form of happiness, a release from the shackles of normal cognition. They cannot know whether it might be deeply meaningful for their children or partner to care for them. They may be unable to imagine how heartbreakingly hard, if not impossible, it could be for a loving family member to help them die.”
Even if someone with a positive Alzheimer’s diagnosis does not want to consider assisted suicide, they will likely feel pressure to consider it because of the care they will eventually need and the fear of burdening others.
We have seen the test for Down’s syndrome lead to 90 percent of Down’s syndrome babies being aborted. In the future, could such a test for Alzheimer’s pressure 90 percent of the people with a positive diagnosis to kill themselves before they require?
The Commentary can be found on Time.com at http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/08/as-tests-better-predict-alzheimers-patients-may-contemplate-their-right-to-die/