Imagine living in a calm and peaceful home, surrounded by your children and grandchildren. But then one day, you are diagnosed with brain cancer. Immediately, doctors frantically begin doing whatever they can to treat it, but it is of no use—you are terminally ill and have six months left to live. Suddenly everything you once had is ripped from you forever— your health, your happiness, and even your mental state. Yet, the doctors are still doing everything they can to slow down the disease.
Soon, you have so many tubes coming out of you that you have lost track of them all. And you are in so much pain that you have to constantly stay hopped up on morphine, but as a result, end up further compromising your mental state. This is the suffering and loss of dignity that many terminally ill patients experience as they edge towards death. To provide them with an option to end their lives peacefully, proponents of the Death with Dignity movement started to advocate for physician-assisted suicide, a practice in which a doctor prescribes a lethal dose of barbiturates for the terminally ill patient to ingest.
With its passage of the Death with Dignity Act in 1994, Oregon became the first state in America to legalize this practice. However, U.S. District Court Judge Hogan temporarily barred Oregon from placing that law into effect. Three years later, in the cases of Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court ruled that the decision of whether or not to allow assisted suicide should be left up to the individual states.
So in 1998, 16 people passed away using assisted suicide under the first full year of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act’s implementation. Oregon’s success was soon followed by Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, and Washington D.C, as each jurisdiction passed its own laws legalizing assisted suicide (“Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Timeline”). These legislations emphasize human dignity and compassion toward those nearing death and provide them with a legal option to end their lives peacefully. The choice of assisted suicide needs to be legalized since it will end needless suffering of the terminally ill while allowing them to die on their own terms.
To start, assisted suicide should be legalized because it will stop prolonged suffering of the terminally ill. By 2016, 79% of those who had died using a lethal prescription had been suffering from end-stage cancer (Hirschhorn). So, researchers from the Institute for Rehabilitation Research and Development conducted a study on terminally ill cancer patients, interviewing 70 of them on their views of assisted suicide. Of these patients, 73% strongly supported the legalization of assisted suicide, listing their pain and loss of enjoyment as their main reasons for choosing so. 57% of them went on to say they may request a future lethal medication, especially if their pain or symptoms becomes unbearable. And 12% of them stated they would place such a request at the time of the interview if it was legal in their state, citing pain severity, hopelessness, and loss of happiness and interest toward life as the rationale behind their thinking (“Attitudes of terminally ill patients toward euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide”). Although one may not think much about it, these patients suffer a great deal before they pass away. Scott Alexander, a physician who treats many terminally ill patients, describes how several of them become completely restricted to their beds, unable to stand up and walk or sometimes, even to turn over. As a result, they become totally reliant on nurses to periodically shift their positions to prevent the formation of pressure ulcers along their back. But unfortunately, patients are often not looked after enough so their skin inevitably begins to develop these pressure ulcers, large red sores that can corrode themselves through their skin and flesh until their bones are showing: an agonizingly unimaginable pain. Aside from the development of pressure ulcers, as the disease progresses, many patients’ limbs will become entirely useless and eventually, will have to be amputated, like “sacrifices to save the host.” Although some people may still believe every possible measure should be taken to fight the disease, many patients feel like they no longer want to live if this suffering is the price to pay (Alexander). One such example is John Minor, a retired psychologist with a painful end-stage lung disease. Barely being able to eat or talk and suffering multiple episodes of suffocation, he already felt miserable, but it was the excruciating pain that finally led him to “[think] he couldn’t go on,’ his wife Sherry said. It got to the point where even the morphine wouldn’t alleviate his pain so he either had to be fully sedated or constantly be in pain. After a while, they came across Kaiser, a hospital which was willing to give him the lethal medication he needed. So on September 15, 2016, surrounded by his loved ones, John swallowed the medication, slipped into a coma, and died a quick and painless death. ‘John did what was right for him,’ Sherry said afterwards. ‘He died peacefully, rather than in agony” (Karlamangla).
Furthermore, assisted suicide provides a way for the terminally ill to die on their own terms. At modern day hospitals, a certain loss of dignity accompanies aggressive end-of-life treatment, especially as the disease begins to impair patients’ physical and mental abilities. For instance, as their excretory system begins to fail, patients have to be connected to catheters; otherwise, they risk spending a significant portion of every day laying in their own feces. To aid their digestive system, patients have feeding tubes connected to their stomachs; however, these frequently lead to infections. When their conditions worsen, this feeding tube is then replaced by an IV tube that transports nutrients directly into their blood. And as for breathing tubes, for them to function properly, many patients have to be heavily sedated or restrained to prevent them from pulling them out. With all these tubes sticking out of them—along with intubations, dialysis, and other invasive treatments—many patients feel like more of a science experiment than a human being. So while many people argue that these patients should try any treatment necessary so they may live a little longer, they really do not have much to gain from extending their wretched state of life by mere days or weeks (Wang). According to PBS Frontline’s section on “Facing Death,” more than 70% of terminally ill patients state they would prefer dying peacefully in their homes surrounded by their loved ones as opposed to going through the rigorous process of hospitalization and intensive care, even if it would give them a few more weeks to live. Yet, in spite of this, less than 25% of them actually get to be that lucky (“Facing Death”). Research shows, however, that 95% of patients who have chosen assisted suicide have passed away in their homes or in a home of a family member or friend, surrounded with their loved ones. These patients manage to avoid the dehumanizing effects of hospital treatment while keeping their dignity intact. According to TIME Magazine, 91% of patients chose assisted suicide because they wanted to preserve their autonomy, and 81% of them wanted to preserve their dignity (Hirschhorn). One such patient was Judith Dunning, a longtime patient of Dr. Rabow, who had been diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer. Her speech was rapidly slurring and soon, she would be rendered unintelligible. And to her, “when she could no longer communicate, life was no longer worth living.” On the day she was going to take the lethal medication, many people visited her, offering their support and their goodbyes; then, they departed, and only her family, her nurse, and Dr. Rabow remained. She then took her lethal dose of barbiturates, losing consciousness almost immediately and then passing away peacefully within a couple hours. Afterwards, Dr. Rabow commented, “I was honored to be there to watch this very dignified woman live her life the way she wanted to” (Wang).
Assisted suicide is a humane choice that needs to be legalized since it provides a legal way for the terminally ill to end their needless suffering and die on their own terms. However, after I have presented all my evidence, some of you may still be skeptical, claiming there is a large possibility of abuse or misuse that comes with such a choice. Let me assure you that this is not the case. To start, only terminally ill patients with less than six months to live are eligible for assisted suicide and no one beside the patient is legally authorized to suggest or even insinuate this option. So, insurance companies cannot influence patients to pursue assisted suicide just so they can save money. Furthermore, only a physician with an MD or DO degree can prescribe this medicine and before they do, they must suggest alternatives so the patient knows assisted suicide is not his or her only option. Lastly, the patient has to be in the proper mental state and is the only one permitted to administer the drug. With all these safeguards, the potential for a botched suicide is slim to none (Karlamangla). As an individual, there are several ways you can support the Death with Dignity movement. First, you can go to deathwithdignity.org, the official website of the movement and click “Join The Death With Dignity Movement,” which will alert and inform you on its latest progress. You can go further by clicking on the “Tell your Friends” tab and share this graphic on social media to help spread awareness and garner support for this pressing issue. Lastly, in the future, if one of your loved ones does contract a terminal illness and considers assisted suicide, don’t get upset or discourage them right away. Try to understand what they are going through, inform them of their other options, and stay supportive throughout the process. By supporting assisted suicide, you are ensuring the terminally ill have the final say on how they leave this world.