Opinion

Relief for Terminally Ill Through Assisted Death

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Death. 

It is an uncomfortable subject, taboo even, but quite possibly it is the only guarantee in this life. While death may be guaranteed, it is still riddled with uncertainty: uncertainty of when, how, and what comes next.  This uncertainty seems to be the backbone of the natural fear that many have come to associate with the concept of death. In one single moment everything just stops. Will it hurt? Will it be a relief? In certain situations, the latter can be true; death can be a relief and medical aid in dying, or death with dignity laws (more commonly known as physician-assisted dying) can aid in bringing that relief to individuals in need.

As of 2019, there are eight states and D.C. that have aid in dying statutes in place. The first being Oregon in 1994, and the most recent additions including New Jersey and Maine in 2019. Death with dignity laws allow for mentally competent adults who have a terminal illness to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to quicken, and more so, ease their forthcoming death. These statutes allow patients to maintain their autonomy and take control of their end-of-life care. This can be a powerful act for someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, when everything feels so out of control, both for the patient themselves, and their loved ones. 

According to the Death with Dignity website, seven in ten Americans support the right of terminally ill individuals to die on their own terms. Like many issues that seem to deal with life and death, controversy surrounds the idea of aid in dying statutes. An article from Medical News Today found that those against the concept build their cases on the role of doctors, mental illness, and the use of palliative care, among others. However, many of these concerns can be countered based on the legislation in place. 

For example, doctors who oppose the concept are not forced to practice it. While aiding in a patient’s death may seem to violate a doctor’s oath, Dr. Jeff Sutherland, a former family doctor, diagnosed with ALS, had this to say regarding the matter:

“The Hippocratic Oath that we all recited upon graduation tells us to do no harm to our patients. I think that sometimes inaction while a patient is suffering with a terminal illness is to do harm.”

When it comes to access to this option, many fear it will be abused, especially by individuals who may suffer with mental illness, specifically depression. However, the death with dignity process is robust. In-depth screenings to determine patient competence and voluntariness are completed and confirmed by two physicians before a prescription may be given. The same Medical News Today article found that fewer than 1% of physicians in both Oregon and Washington write these prescriptions each year.

As for palliative care, it is important, and palliative in and of itself for patients and physicians to be able to openly explore and discuss all options regarding their end-of-life care. Dr. David Grube wrote a detailed column in which he discusses these matters further.

Terminal diseases take away life and leave the body to remain; empty and lost, longing for the mind and the soul that once vitalized it. It is not a desirable life these victims are dragged through, as they are filled with sedatives and narcotics to ease their pain. When in reality, the only relief most of them seek is the final act, the final curtain call: death.

Dr. Sutherland put it into interesting terms, as he related the idea to his own terminal illness, and while he has chosen to continue to live with his illness he says, “Should my circumstances change, I find comfort in the fact that I can now choose a gentle and humane death surrounded by loved ones on my own terms.”

Death can be a relief. When living itself is gone. When only a body remains and the soul wishes to be set free. It is not meant to be sad, but to be liberating. Liberating from the heavy, heavy chains of the slow burning horror movie that is terminal illness. Medical aid in dying paves a way to that liberation.

By Darby Moloney, Activist writer

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