Dignity in Death: a Patients’ Right

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“I already ended life, I want to exit life” is a profound quote by terminally ill Barbara Lucke in the documentary How to Die in Oregon. This film brings to the forefront the provocative issue of physician-assisted suicide, also known as PAS. It is considered controversial because people perceive it’s ethical, religious, and moral issue differently. Many believe it is the responsibility of lawmakers to choose how terminally ill citizens may die.

Every terminally ill adult has a right to choose assisted suicide or natural death, and no government has a right to control their choice. Every day someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, with only weeks or months to live — those last week’s maybe horrendous for the patient and their family. For the one dying, there is usually excruciating pain, humiliating personal care issues such as incontinence and a possible vegetative state. For the family, they anguish over watching someone they love to suffer. They may become overwhelmed with the care of the patient both mentally and physically. There may also be a substantial financial burden due to the cost of care. Some terminally ill people prefer not to go through the long drawn out scenario of dying. They want to go out while they still have some dignity.

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Dignity a beautiful word meaning decency, and everyone needs to be treated with decency; that is why “Death with Dignity,” is a perfect name given to the Oregon State law which allows terminally ill citizens to choose PAS. Since Oregon passed the “Death with Dignity” law in 1994, the first state to do so, others have followed, but not all. The terminally ill people featured in the film How to Die in Oregon, give a wonderful insight into their rationale for using PAS. In the words of Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old wife and mother, dying of incurable cancer, '[I] rather go when feeling good.” (How to Die in Oregon) She didn’t give up the fight; Cody fought long and hard, but knew she wanted to keep her dignity at the end. Her dying words, “This was so easy, I wish people knew how easy.” (How to Die in Oregon) Although Cody and many others shared the desire to use PAS, others did not. A case in point, Randy Stroud, a man with cancer wanted to fight until the end. He not only battled cancer but his insurance company too.

The insurer would pay for the “Death with Dignity” drugs, but not his chemotherapy. They felt it would do no good and he was going to die no matter what. (How to Die in Oregon) This scenario is why the law needs to be adjusted; Mr. Stroud should have had a choice to fight or not. Physician-assisted suicide has been the subject of many legal battles and studies by qualified experts. People cannot agree on its legal use because of various reasons such as ethics, moral or religious objections. The Supreme Court has used a brief written by prominent philosophers of the 21st century, known as The Philosophers Brief, to aid in their decisions on PAS. In a quote from the Philosophers Brief, “These cases do not invite or require the Court to make moral, ethical, or religious judgments about how people should approach or confront their death or about when it is ethically appropriate to hasten one’s own death or to ask others for help in doing so. On the contrary, they ask the Court to recognize that individuals have a constitutionally protected interest in making those grave judgments for themselves, free from the imposition of any religious or philosophical orthodoxy by court or legislature.” (Dubois page 163) The points made in this brief define why physician-assisted suicide should be allowed in the United States. On the state level, lawmakers and PAS advocates have done due diligence in crafting laws supporting PAS. One safety measure put in place in California, is the “Final Attestation Form” (a document signed by the patient within 48 hours of death), to ensure that a patient is acting autonomously. (Petrillo et al. page 886)

The laws in California are also designed for the protection of the healthcare providers too. If they choose not to participate, they may do so, because that is their constitutionally protected right. The key to successful laws regarding physician-assisted suicide is conversation, compassion, and decency. In conclusion, the topic of physician-assisted suicide may be a touchy one, evoking all types of emotions based on individual beliefs. In the end, the choice is a private one, and no one should interfere with that choice. No government or individual has a right to stop any terminally ill adult from choosing death with dignity or natural death.

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