As a healthcare professional, keeping people healthy and free from suffering is likely your passion, and a day-to-day reality. Most people in the United States are living the way they see fit, pursuing their liberty and happiness – and yet when it comes to death, our personal rights seem to become muddled.
For the terminally ill or those with less than 6 months to live, does there come a time when choosing to leave this life becomes appropriate?
Laws surrounding physician-assisted suicide have been in the public sphere for decades, with recent initiatives and laws once again sparking the debate.
Differing from euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide is defined “suicide by a patient facilitated by means (as a drug prescription) or by information (as an indication of a lethal dosage) provided by a physician who is aware of the patient’s intent.”
States with Dignified Death
Currently, there are 5 states that have afforded citizens the right to precipitate their own death through lethal doses of drugs like Seconal or Nembutal.
Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and California (starting June 9) all allow terminal patients to end their lives with dignity after submitting a series of formal requests. Montana also has the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which requires a court to decide whether a lethal prescription can be given.
If there is no chance of long-term survival, should we have the right to die in a humane and medically efficient way? How autonomous are we as citizens if there is no way to control our own deaths? Or is it that we should be legally obligated to stay living, despite immense, irreversible suffering?
Support and Opposition
Those in opposition of assisted-death often believe these laws devalue human life. Inaccurate medical prognoses are cited by which people had come to believe they would die in months, and then went on to live for several years longer. Additionally, people who are terminally ill often suffer from depressions or other mental illnesses that regularly go overlooked.
However, it’s hard to balance our often-vague notions of death with the rigidly definitive laws of the land.
In places with physician-assisted death laws, legislation came to be amidst an obvious division of viewpoints. Support and opposition was almost split down the middle in places like Oregon (51% in support) and Washington (57.91% in support). Many people in Vermont were initially opposed according to a poll from the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, however the law was eventually created.
Facing Pain with Compassion
So with upcoming End of Life Option Act signed into law by California’s governor, Jerry Brown, this topic persists as a dark, yet necessary area of medicine to address.
The law comes in part as a response to the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old Californian who had moved to Oregon in order to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity law. Suffering from terminal brain cancer, Maynard peacefully ended her life on November 3rd, 2014 through the use of a lethal prescription.
Instead of suffering the aggressive loss of her verbal, cognitive, and motor skills, Maynard opted to control her own death, saving her family the pain of having to watch as her physical state deteriorated irreparably.
Her story gained huge momentum on social media, prompting as much support as it did outrage – yet Maynard had persisted to be a catalyzing figure in California’s legislative adoption of similar provisions.
Although you may not be practicing in a state with physician-assisted death laws, this topic is definitely polarizing physicians and doctors nationwide. Past surveys reported that 54% of U.S. doctors favored aid in dying, however this leaves a wide demographic of disagreement.
Whatever your personal standpoint on the issue, the Death with Dignity Act, and others like it have been designed with patients and families in mind. Compared to intense suffering, allowing people to end their lives surrounded by loved ones seems to be the superior choice for many.
When faced with the grim prospects of survival, physician-assisted death can represent the last aspect of control afforded to a terminally ill patient. As with many instances of compassion and suffering, it can help to ask ourselves whether we would want the same available choice for a friend or loved one.