Death With Dignity

Terminally ill patients deserve the right to die

Right now, somewhere in our country, there is a woman who’s terminally ill in a place where she cannot die with dignity. She does not want to be the person she is becoming: scared, querulous, self-obsessed, ungiving and cancerous. She already has an imminent death sentence, an impending doom. It could be multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. It could be pancreatic cancer, or even Alzheimer’s. The terminal illness will take its time killing her, tasting the sweetness of her submissive cells and licking its fingers. She’s living while she’s dying, she has no control, and she’s not the only one.

Terminal illnesses, the silent but obstinate killers that plague our society and rob victims of their lives, are finally getting appropriate attention. Movements such as the Right to Die and Death With Dignity have recently gained traction, stemming from the first physician-assisted suicide laws, which were passed in Oregon in 1997. After this precedent was set, four other states, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California, have legalized physician-assisted suicide, a practice in which diagnosed, terminally ill patients are prescribed lethal medications from a physician for the purpose of death. According to CNN correspondent, “Physician-assisted suicide differs from euthanasia, which is defined as the act of assisting people with their death in order to end their suffering, but without the backing of a controlling legal authority.” This means that physician-assisted suicide must be mandated by state-governments. Therefore, the other 45 states, or 90% of our country, need to jump on the legalization bandwagon and give those that are hopelessly dying the right to end their lives with purpose and with dignity.

The basic set of regulations in the five states that have so far legalized the process include the patient having a terminal illness with a prognosis of fewer than six months to live, voluntary participation of the physician, the lethal prescription only made by a licensed physician, and the patient being 18 years or older and having competent mental abilities to consciously make the decision. Although these regulations greatly limit the number of patients and cases eligible, physician-assisted suicide is still extremely controversial, as many continue to lobby against it.

Many doctors have stood up against the movement, feeling personally offended that they have been asked to help kill someone instead of trying to keep them alive. Dr. Douglas Frankel, a physician for internal medicine, noted on a medical forum that, “We took an oath. As physicians, if we take our Oath seriously, there is no place for assisting a person in taking his or her own life.” Dr. Frankel continues to argue that the process of dying can be made much more comfortable and as painless as possible in a medical environment. He and other physicians have tools at their disposal so that the pain and suffering can be alleviated for both patients and their families. Therefore, he argues, “The medical profession should not be asked to be a party to suicide, and if asked should vigorously refuse.”

Many more in the medical world have chimed in to support the argument that multiple aspects of physician-assisted suicide breach physicians’ long-standing code. According to another doctor commenting on the same medical forum, J. Donald Boudreau, some physicians have distanced themselves from physician-assisted suicide in the states where it has been legalized and exercised their right to not participate due to their “moral intuition that intentionally facilitating or inflicting death is wrong.” Dr. Boudreau accuses patients of expecting an empathetic presence from their physicians although the process may conflict with their morals. The clashes between those on the two sides of this issue have resulted in court cases and many debates, making it a more political affair than what it really should be: a personal decision.

Despite the attempts made by non-advocates to dissuade courts and veto proposed laws, it is necessary to understand that by legalizing physician-assisted suicide, no more people would die, but fewer would suffer. Even if those with terminal illnesses were to fight to the death, they would lose at some point. It is a matter of time, and a matter of whether the patient is willing to live for a little longer, even though what they consider living is simply ‘staying alive.’ Regarding the morality of the doctors that has claimed to be infringed upon, physician-assisted suicide has never been mandatory for physicians to execute. For many patients suffering from a painful or debilitating terminal illness, the option to end life early may come as an immense comfort and liberation. That patients deserve a freedom from preventable and often horrible suffering cannot be opposed on any ethical grounds. It is imperative that these patients are provided with the option for suicide assistance when great suffering will otherwise occur.

Many patients diagnosed with cancer or terminal illnesses refuse life-saving treatments in an attempt to live life more like the way it is meant to be lived, not in cold, bare hospital rooms with tubes sewn through them like patchwork. Of course, there have been miracles in the past where the terminally ill have survived, but the likelihood of this occurring is so small and insignificant, that at one point it is more pragmatic, and should be considered acceptable, to declare someone beyond hope. However, if a terminally ill patient can choose not to pursue the greatest extent of medical effort to save themselves, then they should also have the freedom to choose to end their own lives. Both options become synonymous, at one point.

In the end, and in the courts, it becomes a question of freedom. Rafia Zakaria, an attorney and political philosopher, notes in an op-ed article that the discretion to live according to one’s beliefs and choices is duly recognized and celebrated in the United States; however when it comes to being able to choose death over life, over excruciating pain, 90% of the country regards it as completely unacceptable on every level of action. Denying mentally capable individuals the right to end their lives in a peaceful manner is a denial of their individual rights to self-determination and freedom of choice. Laws criminalizing assisted suicide, and even threatening assistants with prosecution and incredible fines, are unfair and particularly intrusive for the terminally ill. Like children, they are being forced to do something against their will, and told that their opinion isn’t valued and won’t make a difference anyway. Having the government exclusively mandate whether or not one should be forced to go through such anguish is inhumane. Instead, terminally ill patients must be allowed the most personal and fundamental human right to choose death. It is time for our country to nationally legalize the opportunity to find peace and dignity in dying, when it is no longer attainable in life.

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