Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Divisive Issue
by Bryanne McDonough | published Feb. 5th, 2016
"My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain?" Brittany Maynard questioned in a commentary for CNN.
On Nov. 1, 2014, Maynard died surrounded by loved ones with her dignity intact. Diagnosed with brain cancer at 29-years-old, Maynard moved to Oregon — one of the few states that has legalized physician-assisted suicide — from California and became an advocate for the non-profit organization Compassion & Choices. Facing a short future fraught with morphine-resistant pain, personality changes and verbal, cognitive and/or motor loss, Maynard chose to end her life on her own terms with medication prescribed by a physician for that purpose.
Physician-assisted suicide has only been legalized in five states: Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Montana and California. In each of these states (aside from Montana which approved it through the court system), physician-assisted suicide was legalized by legislative vote. California is the most recent of these states to legalize the heavily controversial practice. Already, there are those in the state fighting against the law, although the most recent petition to put it on the state's ballot for a vote, led by California's Catholic bishops, failed to gain enough signatures.
There are many different reasons why a patient may consider assisted suicide. Oregon, which has allowed physician-assisted suicide since October 1997, has had ample time to collect the data. In fact, Oregon's public health department lists the top five reasons patients choose to end their lives early: loss of autonomy (91.5 percent), decreased ability to engage in enjoyable activities (88.7 percent), loss of dignity (79.3 percent), loss of bodily control (50.1 percent) and becoming a burden on others (40 percent).
In order for a patient to be considered eligible for physician-assisted suicide, they must be mentally competent and have a terminal illness with a prognosis to live less than six months. The exact laws vary from state to state. California, for example, requires that the patient meet with their physician privately, so as to avoid coercion by family members.
Physician-assisted suicide may result in less of a financial burden on a terminal patient's family, as well; a handful of pills can be significantly less expensive than six months of aggressive treatment. In addition, some health insurance policies in states where it is legalized will cover assisted suicide but not long-term end-of-life care. However, there is another side to this as well: Opponents to the legalization of assisted suicide fear that this could become standard if the movement is successful, leading to a disproportionate amount of poor people having no choice but to ask doctors to help them end their lives. Another argument is that all life has value and that doctors should not be allowed to facilitate the death of their patients.
"I'm not going to push the old or the weak out of this world. I think that could be the unintended consequence of this legislation," said California Senator Ted Gaines while the California Senate debated, in an article in The New York Times.
"I'm not going to push the old or the weak out of this world."
According to Death with Dignity, an organization that advocates for physician-assisted suicide, half of the states in which assisted suicide is still illegal have pending legislation on the matter. A Gallop poll from last May revealed that 68 percent of Americans now support physician-assisted suicide, up 10 percentage points from 2014. Previous legislation has failed in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, although by thin margins. Massachusetts shot down a Death with Dignity initiative on the November 2012 ballot by a majority of only 51 percent.
New York is one of the many states considering legalizing assisted suicide. On Jan. 12, supporters and opponents gathered in Albany to argue their cases with lawmakers.
"She loved life, but she said people should have the choice. She didn't want people to have to go through what she was going through without a choice," said Clifton Park, New York resident Kate Connery, referring to her 29-year-old daughter who died of pancreatic and liver cancer, according to Canandaigua's Daily Messenger.
"She didn't want people to have to go through what she was going through without a choice."
An attorney from Washington State, Margaret Dore, argued against the bill.
"This is a recipe for elder abuse," Dore stated, claiming that no amount of safeguards could make the bill safe enough. While the bill has supporters in both the New York Assembly and Senate, it has yet to be decided whether the bill will get a vote this year.
Like any age-old political argument, the two sides are asking very different questions. On one hand, is it right to intentionally assist in taking a life? On the other, is it okay to take away a choice that could end one's suffering? As legislatures grapple with these questions, the ultimate answer rests in the hearts of the American people. In June 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning assisted suicide did not violate the Constitution, but left the ultimate choice to the individual states.
Maynard lived and died happily with her choice. "I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully. I can't imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice," she wrote in her opinion piece for CNN.
Do you have an opinion on physician-assisted suicide? Write a letter to your local representative and keep an eye on the ballot box, or send us a Letter to the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.