Do We Have the Right to Decide the Way We Die?
In California, it is illegal for a physician to assist a terminally ill person in voluntary suicide. But what role do government regulations have when the individual's suffering becomes unbearable? Whose right is it to determine how one dies? Brittany Maynard’s story and stories similar to hers only have one answer; it is the individual’s right and theirs alone.
Last weekend Brittany Maynard died through physician-assisted suicide in Oregon after her long and painful battle with cancer. Maynard, a recently married 29 year old California resident, moved to Oregon upon her decision to end her life, as Oregon is one of five states in the U.S. to allow physician-assisted suicide. In an interview published through CNN, Maynard expressed a sense of solace once she had been granted the lethal medication, “It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”
Although she has received criticism by Vatican officials who labeled her actions as “in itself reprehensible,” many have supported her and rejected the imposition of religious beliefs that were not her own. Because of this experience, Maynard used the end of her life to raise awareness for something she believed should be available to all Americans in equivalent situations.
Similar to Maynard, Jennifer Glass is another California resident currently living with advanced lung cancer, who has decided to end her life on her own terms. In an interview, Glass states, “I don’t want to drown in my own lung fluid with my family watching me suffer, I want a different way to exit — a life that I’ve worked hard to live fully." As the possibility of living for 5 years or more remains at 5 percent for Glass, she would like the same option that was afforded to Maynard. However, physician assisted suicide remains illegal in California.
Physician assisted suicide is when “a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act (eg, the physician provides sleeping pills and information about the lethal dose, while aware that the patient may commit suicide).”
The current political landscape for assisted-suicide in California is extremely polarized. Legislature has attempted to pass bills that would allow physician assisted suicide in California, such as in 2007, but have been unsuccessful in receiving adequate support. The issue raises too many complex arguments--such as the involvement of health insurance in assisted-suicide as a cheaper alternative and the preemptive choice to undergo assisted-suicide when there is a possibility of recovery. The only strong precedent is an Oregon law which has allowed assisted-suicide since 1998. Eight hundred and three Oregon residents have chosen the route of the “aid-in-dying” law between 1998 and June of this year.
With the recent push in awareness for assisted-suicide, it would not be surprising to see California legislature address the topic again. But as of now, California has no solid stance on the matter, as it ultimately comes down to an argument of ethics.
Some argue that this process conflicts with the core role of the physician as a healer because this provides a route that is counter intuitive to the doctor’s job to save lives. Others believe that in a situation of unavoidable death, the physician should make the situation as tolerable and comfortable as possible.
Ultimately, I believe that physician assisted suicide should be legalized in California. When reading Brittany Maynard’s commentary on her situation, the passage in which she said, “I've had the medication for weeks. I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms,” stuck out with absolute clarity and profundity.
It is crucial to establish the vast difference between suicide and physician-assisted suicide. The latter concerns the recognition of the inevitable loss of life even though the individual still has a will to live. How can they be killing themselves when they are so close to death? Rather the individual is deciding to maintain control of what life they have left by not letting it deteriorate beyond the point of recognition. But don’t take it from me, take it from someone who has endured the journey.
“I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I'll never meet that this option is available to you. If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.
Physician-assisted suicide is not suicide. It is an option for those who have no more options. It is a choice and one that should be granted to any of those who are dreadfully in need of it. When death is inevitable in these situations, the individual should be able to choose a death that is painless and on their own terms."