It is time to have a serious conversation about death and dying. We need to discuss allowing the terminally ill and mentally fit to be able to fulfill their final wish to leave the good Earth with dignity.
The group End of Life Choices New York is pushing for that conversation and has, along with the national nonprofit disability rights advocacy group, Disability Rights Legal Center, recently filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court to clarify the ability of mentally competent, terminally ill New York patients “to obtain aid in dying from their physician if they find their dying process unbearable.”
There has been plenty of pushback. Religious groups and others incorrectly perceive hastening of death in these specific situations to be “assisted suicide.” It is not.
End of Life Choices New York describes “aid in dying” as “the practice of a physician prescribing medication to a terminally ill, mentally competent patient who may choose to ingest it to end suffering they find unbearable, and achieve a peaceful death.”
The idea is that patients, who have met a series of requirements ensuring they are not being coerced and are mentally capable of such a decision and are within a few months of dying, must themselves ingest the medication. Some correctly wonder how this is worse than a decision to discontinue life-sustaining treatment such as a ventilator or feeding tube.
Aid in dying is permitted by statute in Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Montana and New Mexico permit the practice by court decision. Montana has a lower court decision on appeal. All these states or courts recognize “aid in dying,” and not “assisted suicide.”
The distinction is critical. The language goes directly to the heart of the discussion for someone who is of sound mind but whose body has failed him and there is no hope for an extended life. To fully understand the calculation that goes into such a decision, listen to the stories of people like Sara Myers, who with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, merely wants the right to choose, with the medicine on hand. So do many others in similarly hopeless situations.
Findings have shown that about one-third of people who get the medicine in states where the right is given never take it. Denying a terminally ill, mentally competent patient this choice can cause undue emotional suffering for the patient. Dr. Marcia Angell wrote an article for the Washington Post that was published in The News last November about her dying husband, a distinguished physician in his own right, and his request to choose the process of his demise. Diagnosed with metastatic cancer, he had a good idea of what the end would look like. He died at home in Massachusetts, with hospice care, his wife wrote, “but not in the way he wanted.”
Brittany Maynard brought a national spotlight to the subject when the 29-year-old who had incurable brain cancer moved from California to Oregon, the jurisdiction with the longest history of allowing aid in dying, so that she could have her wishes legally met.
The end is inevitable, but for some it comes as the result of an excruciating and cruel illness. Why not allow those capable of making a sound decision a choice? It won’t be an easy discussion, but it is an important one that is well worth having.