The Right to Death with Dignity

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

I do not want to die.  But I am dying and I want to die on my own terms.   ~ Brittany Maynard

My husband and I are standing in the vet’s office at 7:00 a.m. holding our little dachshund Zoey. We know it’s time. I am crying; asking the vet to tell me I am doing the right thing.  He surprises me by saying, “I don’t need to tell you. Her eyes are already far away, and she is telling you.”

Death with Dignity, Is it  your right to die, end of lifeWrapped in her yellow blanket, my husband and I stroke her head as she goes into a peaceful sleep and slips away. We loved her for eighteen years and let her go with love and compassion.

Death with dignity—acceptable and encouraged for animals, denied to humans in all but eight states.

The Choices We Make

We live most of our life making choices without government interference, but the right to die is not one of them. It is a slippery slope, complicated by religious and social views. Current laws prevent those with a terminal illness (no hope of recovery) to end their suffering on their own terms.

I want to live long and prosper. However, if I face a medical condition that robs my quality of life, with no treatment or recovery, I want to decide what happens to me.

The Netherlands was the first country to pass laws that permit physician-assisted death, making it legal for doctors to help people die. It is also legal in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Columbia, Japan and Quebec.

I would not tell anyone else what choices he or she should make. I question why anyone feels they have the right to tell me I what choice I should make. Our current methods of end-of-life care fail to provide a terminally ill, mentally sound individual with the right to die on his or her own terms.

This is a hotly debated topic. I believe my right to choose does not include the government. Religious leaders advocate against death-with-dignity laws, believing physician assisted suicide is a sin.

Legal Options for Death with Dignity

Let me be clear. I don’t believe the only way to die with dignity is to end a life. When there are compassionate options for end-of-life care that mitigate pain and suffering, I consider that a choice.

Hospice and palliative care help patients die with dignity. I know first-hand the end of life care offered by hospice and other ministries. My appreciation for their calling knows no bounds, but they can only do so much.

Twenty years ago, my mom was dying of liver cancer. I wanted nothing more than for her suffering to be over. She weighed 80 pounds. Despite skin patches releasing OxyContin directly into her body, she was in constant pain. It was not the ending she wanted, or the ending we wanted for her.

The hospice nurse left me a bottle of liquid Oxy to administer inside her cheek, instructing me to give as much as needed to help with pain. I remember crying and asking, “what if I give her too much?” She replied, “There is no such thing.”

She lived another three weeks.

Let Your Voice Be Heard Legally

I have taken legal steps, shared with my family, that make my choices clear. I have no desire to suffer through terminal physical and emotional pain. Neither do I wish my family to endure that kind of suffering. I believe in the right to make that choice for myself.

The majority of the states have made physician-assisted suicide illegal. In fact, there are only eight, plus Washington D.C. where it is legal.

Light at the end of the tunnel, death, afterlife, death with dignityThey are:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

The state of Oregon was the first to pass death-with-dignity laws in 1994 but it took 14 years before Washington State followed in 2008. In 2019, Maine and New Jersey passed the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.

How Death with Dignity Works

Death-with-dignity statutes require anyone seeking death-hastening medication to consult with two doctors.  Both must agree the patient has less than six months to live.

The patient must make two oral and one written requests for medication, with a 15-day waiting period between the first and second oral requests. Physicians must wait 48 hours between receiving a written request and writing a prescription for medication.

Patients are required to self-administer the medication; when and where they do so is up to them. This allows patients to die on their own terms.

The drugs, determined by prescribing physicians rather than by law, have changed over the years. Today, the recommended protocol is a four-drug cocktail of diazepam (Valium), morphine, digoxin and amitriptyline. The cost is around $750.

Compassion and Choice

None of us has the right to tell another how much suffering they can and should bearEuthanasia represents one of the oldest issues in medical ethics. Forbidden in the original Hippocratic Oath and opposed by most religious traditions; it is not without controversy.

Medical science is capable of prolonging human life even if the body is ready to die. It forces the family to bear a financial burden and the patient unnecessary suffering. This is not a death with dignity or compassion.

Medicine prolongs life and promotes health, but it can also relieve suffering. We have a right to die with dignity, and the medicine can provide that assistance.

Death Makes Life Important

Death is not the opposite of life but a part of itIn the television series Six Feet Under a grieving relative asks the funeral director the million-dollar question, “Why does there have to be death?”  “Because,” he replies, “it makes life important.

Eventually I will cross The Great River. When my time comes, I hope we are a more compassionate and understanding society. My hope is that the terminally ill can die on their terms. It is not only what I want, it is what I deserve.

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1 thought on “The Right to Death with Dignity

  1. I cannot – for religious reasons – commit suicide (with one notable exception that I know).

    My concern with assisted suicide is that, as we’ve seen in countries that have enacted it, it has morphed from “the right to die” to “the duty to die.” There was a horrific case, I don’t recall which country, in which an elderly woman was held down by her family members while the doctor injected her with the fatal poison. (IIRC the woman, had, previously said she didn’t want heroic measures to keep her alive, but this is different – she was actively resisting and saying NO!)

    Having said that, “heroic measures” to keep someone alive are, IMHO, being misused. And while, at least at present, yes I want to stay alive if only for my children’s sake, as they move into adulthood I plan to revise my advance directive accordingly.

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