The following was published in Compassion & Choices’ Summer 2019 magazine (page 6). Karen J. Warren, Ph.D. died at her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota on August 21, 2020.
“Please, just tell me the truth.”
These six words changed Karen Warren’s life forever. After 16 years of chronic health issues, the retired professor of philosophy finally received answers on a winter morning in 2016. “You have MSA, multiple systems atrophy,” her neurologist said.
Karen’s mind swirled with questions for her doctor:
Is MSA a degenerative, neurological brain disorder? “Yes.”
Is MSA progressive? “Yes.”
Is MSA fatal? “Yes.”
Does MSA have a cure? “No.”
Is there any treatment? “No. There is only medicine to treat some symptoms and help with the pain.”
Relief and fear settled within her. Karen faced her own mortality knowing that MSA would rob her of bodily autonomy at the end of her life. She would die without the capacity to swallow, walk, move or talk — losing the ability to say goodbye to her grandchildren, her daughter and her family. Karen called her daughter, Cortney, to deliver the news. When Cortney asked if Karen feared death, she replied: “No, I am not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying this way.”
Faced with a limited number of years before MSA would ravage her body and ultimately take her life, Karen channeled her nearly 40 years of experience as a philosophy professor into action — writing guest blogs for Psychology Today, where her daughter, a psychologist, also publishes, and joining Compassion & Choices to urge legislators to support end-of-life options in Minnesota. Her expertise in ethics became a lived experience.
In 2017, Karen delivered powerful testimony during a press conference in support of HF 1885, the Minnesota End-of-Life Option Act. She evoked philosopher Immanuel Kant, stating, “There are three properties that make us human, that distinguish us from other beings: rationality, dignity and autonomy.”
She continued, “These three properties are precisely those that are at risk by depriving us of the option to choose medical aid in dying.” In these words, Karen exposed a crucial truth: To “do no harm,” it’s imperative that medical professionals and loved ones honor a patient’s wishes at life’s end to uphold their dignity and autonomy.
Since Karen’s diagnosis in February of 2016, every member of her MSA support group has died without access to a full range of end-of-life options. This only strengthens Karen’s resolve to advocate for end-of-life choice and provide guidance to others. In a recent blog post, she encourages everyone to firmly establish their values and priorities, and take action to hold lawmakers accountable to pass medical aid-in-dying legislation:
I am here to encourage you to confront the truth. You are going to die. So is everyone you love. So think about it now. Think about whether you want a voice and a choice. And, if you … believe that it is a basic human right to die with one’s dignity and autonomy preserved, please contact your legislators.
Southwest Journal – Kingfield philosopher seeks medical aid in dying
Psychology Today – A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Karen J. Warren