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Another Voice: Death with dignity requires giving people choices

By Barbara Coombs Lee

Today, all across America, people with end-stage cancer, ALS (often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and other diseases are nearing the end of life. They and their loved ones are struggling to grieve and cope. Enamored by medical wizardry to forestall death, we can barely grasp what’s going on when the time comes to say goodbye to a parent or spouse. Yet a time does always come when modern medicine either cannot forestall death, or only at the price of great suffering.

When this happens, one true hope is for an end to suffering and a peaceful passing. One true dignity is the dignity of acknowledging that hope.

After acknowledgment, the patient’s own values, beliefs and preferences come first. We need to say, “You’re the boss. I’ll support whatever you want.” For to die with dignity is to die in accordance with the hallmarks of a life.

For many, control is fundamental to dignity as well. For them, ending life in an ICU amid wires, tubes and machines is not a death with dignity. Nor is ending life in pain, delirium or coma. Some will want medication they may take in their own time, to die peacefully and escape needless and brutal suffering.

National polls consistently show the vast majority of Americans want the right to choose their medical treatment at the end of their life. A 2012 national poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed 84 percent agree that: “How a terminally ill person chooses to end his/her life should be an individual decision and not a government decision.”

This widespread support is the driving force behind action to enable end-of-life choice in numerous diverse states, including Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont.

Oregon voters approved the first-in-the nation Death with Dignity Act in 1994 and Washington voters approved a similar law in 2008. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by Compassion & Choices, Baxter v. Montana, that it does not violate state public policy in Montana for a physician to provide aid in dying to a mentally competent, terminally ill adult.

Some question the need for these laws, since few people in Oregon – one in 500 – die with prescribed medication. But one in six consider the option and many complete the eligibility process and never ingest the medication. Thousands achieve comfort and peace of mind, knowing they have choices. Fifteen years of experience reveals no evidence of abuse.

Our parents and loved ones need support for their values and choices. Doctors need assurance the law allows them to honor their patients’ wishes.

Death with dignity should not be confused with assisted suicide. Those already dying are not “suicidal” for wanting their life to end in love and peace, not agony and despair.

Barbara Coombs Lee is president of Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy and support group.