“I’m going to die Monday at 6:15pm.” These were the words of Marc Weide’s mother when she chose euthanasia after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. In an astonishingly direct portrayal of his mother’s last days leading up to her appointment, Weide quotes his mother regarding the option of chemo-therapy, “I’m not going bald - I don’t want people saying, ‘How sad, that beautiful hair is all gone.’ Never” (Theguardian.com). The option for one to choose their own end to this life is controversial. There are many people who support physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, but there are also many people who oppose the concept and say that it is a “slippery slope” to handling other vulnerable communities (namely, the disabled). Personally, I feel like it is a terminally ill person’s right to decide how their life ends; especially if they have 6 or less months to live. The autonomy of a terminally ill patient choosing when, where, with whom, and how to end their own life is why physician-assisted suicide should be made legal on a federal level in the United States.
Mrs. Weide was one of the approximately 2,500 Dutch patients who were killed by euthanasia in 2008 (Telegraph.co.uk); The Netherlands is one of ten nations around the world that have legalized assisted suicide. In the United States, euthanasia (the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain or suffering) is illegal in all states, but physician-assisted suicide (the practice of a physician providing a competent, terminally ill patient with a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, upon the patient’s request, which the patient intends to use to end his or her own life) is legal in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont. Constitutionally, the US Supreme Court decided in 1997 that they would not prohibit physician-assisted suicide outright, but would leave the decision up to individual states (Public.health.oregon.gov); it is a moral right, not a constitutional right. One of the big fears when the Oregon program began is that poor people or those without medical insurance would feel pressured to use the program. In fact, after 20 years of operation, the opposite is true. Studies have shown that the people who use this program are overwhelmingly white, well-off, well-educated, have medical insurance and that the primary reason they give for using this is because they value the autonomy of being able to control the end of their lives. And, of course, no one is forced to participate in this program.
Is physician-assisted suicide fair? According to 46 of the 50 United States, it is not. There are a few main arguments opposing the practice including: the aforementioned “slippery slope” argument, prejudices against disabled people with regards to end-of-life care, and conflict of interests when it comes to abiding with legislations and a patient’s genuine intentions when requesting for aid in dying. Jack Kevorkian (a Michigan physician who was a pioneer in physician-assisted suicide), felt differently, “If you don't have liberty and self-determination, you've got nothing, that's what this is what this country is built on. And this is the ultimate self-determination, when you determine how and when you're going to die when you're suffering.” At first Michigan did not have a law specifically prohibiting any kind of assisted suicide - it was dealt with as some type of murder or manslaughter or not at all. However, in 1999, Kevorkian was tried and convicted of second-degree murder in a case of voluntary euthanasia where he ended up serving eight years of a 10-to-25 year prison sentence (he was released on parole on condition that “he would not offer suicide advice to another person”)(Nytimes.com). Kevorkian’s career paved the way for many organizations to push the envelope on physician-assisted suicide reform. In Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, patients who participate in the program say that they partake because their illness rids them of their autonomy, their dignity, and lessens their ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable. Is it fair for a suffering terminally ill patient to not have a say in if they die peacefully today or deteriorate over the course of 6 or less months? Ultimately, the option should be reserved for any terminally ill patient to decide for themselves because they are the one in suffering.
Physician-assisted suicide is an individuals endeavor but affects all of that person’s family and friends. Families of terminally ill patients have to sit by and watch as their beloved mother, sibling, or grand father has to push their way through pain. It is irrational to burden either party with this sort of anguish if the end is the same regardless of the means. To uphold the rights of an individual’s autonomy, the option of individual determination must be granted to those in the most dismal stages of life. If physician-assisted suicide were made legal on a federal level, terminally ill patients would have the chance to end their suffering and die with a feeling of dignity and pride. It may also grant their loved ones an opportunity to cherish the last bit of time they have together without the fear of an unknown departure time. This proposal would help ease the minds of both patients, their loved ones, and even the hospitals/clinics that spend time and energy mindlessly devoted to the terminally ill. It would even save a small amount of money in the grand scheme of health care costs in the United States, “The researchers estimated that by opting for suicide, these people would forgo an average of four weeks of life. Since the medical bills for the last month of life for those who die naturally is $10,118, this would add up to $627 million annually” (cbsnews.com). In turn, it would save money, but more importantly a lot of heartache and emotional distress.
There are many organizations in favor of the physician-assisted suicide but there are nearly equally as many that oppose it. Many religious groups are opposed to physician-assisted suicide because they say practitioners are playing God and disrupting God’s plan. Other non-religious organizations say that it is unethical and immoral for anybody to take their own life. On the other hand, those in support of the practice and say that it is completely a human right. In an interview with BBC, groundbreaking theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking very clearly stated his support for legalizing physician-assisted suicide, “I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and those who help them should be free from prosecution” (Deathwithdignity.org). Organizations like Compassion & Choices (Oregon), Death with Dignity National Center (Washington), and Euthanasia Research & Guidance Center (Oregon) are all at the forefront of exposing the benefits of legalized physician-assisted suicide. However, it still seems improbable for this practice to see national legislature because there are many regions of the United States that are dominated by morally conservative and religious core values. For example, out of the four states where it is currently legal, Montana is the only state that is dominated with Republican representation in the House of Representatives and in their key demographic; not surprisingly, their governor and senators are all Democrats. In order for this practice to become commonly accepted, we need to change how we view death as a culture. For some, death is the natural conclusion to life. For the terminally ill, physician-assisted suicide can be the last thing in life they can control and feel human about.