Assisted Suicide and the Right to Die

The Academy Award-winning film “Million Dollar Baby” has brought back into public focus the issue of assisted suicide.

When the average American thinks of assisted suicide, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian, dubbed the Angel of Death, who was imprisoned in 1999 for helping some terminally ill people to end their lives. But despite the theatrics that surrounded the Kevorkian case, assisted suicide is a serious issue that continues to impact the lives of terminally ill adults and their families, as well as others who believe in the right of the terminally ill to die with dignity on their own terms.

At the heart of the movement in the U.S. is Compassion and Choices, a new incarnation of the well-known right-to-die organization the Hemlock Society. The organization advocates for legislation that will allow terminally ill patients to seek medical assistance in hastening their deaths when their pain becomes unbearable or their quality of life is otherwise intolerably and hopelessly impaired.

As of this writing, Oregon is the only state in the U.S. that allows physician-assisted suicide. The citizens of Oregon voted in favor of the Death With Dignity Act via a ballot measure in 1994, and the Act took effect in 1997.

On February 22, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Justice Department’s petition to hear its case against Oregon’s landmark law. The Justice Department’s challenges have already been struck down by a U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding the right of individual states to regulate medical practice. For the sake of basic human dignity, we must hope that the Supreme Court does not overturn the earlier rulings.

Despite concerns by opponents of the Oregon law who feared that it would lead to a widespread rush to die, to date less than 200 terminally ill patients have used the law to end their lives. That’s an average of about one in 1,000 deaths in that state since the law took effect. These patients found a quick, painless, and certain end to their intolerable suffering, and were spared weeks or months of agony. And their families were spared the anguish of watching their loved ones suffer a painful and prolonged death.

In addition to Oregon, physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland. Everywhere else, the terminally ill are forced to endure sometimes horrific pain at the end of life, or end their misery with a plastic bag, a noose, or other undignified means. And those sad, desperate acts will continue as long as so-called “pro-life” factions keep fighting attempts to widen the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and provide more people with the power to choose a good death over a horrible, lingering, painful one.

What it boils down to is this: While life is precious and should not be thrown away lightly, modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control in all dying patients, even in the best hospices.

While physicians do take an oath to “do no harm,” is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet becomes ill to the point where it is near death or suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the pet be euthanized, to put the animal out of its misery.

So why do we treat our dying pets with more mercy than we treat our dying humans?

I have to agree with Derek Humphry, founder of the original Hemlock Society and author of the controversial book “Final Exit,” who said: “Surely the right to die in a manner and at a time one’s own choosing is the ultimate civil liberty.”

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