Op-Ed

Physician-assisted suicide debate rooted in humanity, not politics

This undated photo shows Brittany Maynard , who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state's Death with Dignity Act, which allows physician-assisted suicide. Maynard, 29, was terminally ill from brain cancer when she ended her life Nov. 2.
This undated photo shows Brittany Maynard , who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state's Death with Dignity Act, which allows physician-assisted suicide. Maynard, 29, was terminally ill from brain cancer when she ended her life Nov. 2. AP

Syndicated columnist Ross Douthat characterizes the debate over the practice of physician-assisted suicide as a liberal-conservative confrontation.

He comments that conservatives have fiercely opposed physician-assisted suicide, while liberals have been conflicted over promoting legal adoption of the practice.

I would argue that physician-assisted suicide is a moral and ethical, rather than political, issue, and that regardless of how individual liberals and conservatives regard themselves and each other, neither camp possesses a superior level of humane principles.

After the passing more than three years ago of Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed "Dr. Death," I suggested that perhaps physician-assisted suicide could be raised to a more serious level of public discourse.

Kevorkian's eccentricities — and his invention of a self-designated "suicide machine" that he used illegally to ease some patients into death — polarized the debate. In the years hence, the Kevorkian stigma continues to discourage many of those who favor the practice from open advocacy.

Recently, a schoolteacher named Brittany Maynard compelled physician-assisted suicide back into public consciousness.

The subject of the Oct. 27 People magazine cover story and countless other media reports, Maynard announced her intention to exercise her right to an early death under Oregon's Death With Dignity law. She did so on Nov. 2.

Maynard joined with Compassion and Choices, an end-of-life advocacy group formerly known as the Hemlock Society, to expand laws such as Oregon's nationwide. (According to the National Death with Dignity Center, 71 people chose to die under the Oregon act in 2013, 0.2 percent of all deaths in the state.)

Currently, physician-assisted suicide is legally permissible in four other states: Washington and Vermont through statutes, and New Mexico and Montana via court decisions.)

Maynard gave physician-assisted suicide a very public, and in her case, young (29) and attractive face. She showed no visible signs of the brain cancer. Her vibrant image contrasted utterly with the stereotypical physician-assisted suicide candidate who is aging, bedridden, in physical and mental agony and losing control of bodily and cognitive functions.

Elderly people are more often central to this debate. As people age, they become increasingly vulnerable to debilitating illness and dementia. These precursors to death can last for years and create immeasurable suffering for victims and their families and at great cost to the social structure.

Should Maynard's end-of-life decision be regarded any differently? Will her self-termination be regarded as more, or less, tragic than if her life were painfully prolonged through medical treatment?

Any ambivalence we might feel in responding to those questions reflects a human conundrum: We simply don't know what, if anything, happens to that essence of ourselves that some call a soul after we die.

No empirical studies support theories as to what, if anything, lies beyond our expiration date. Researchers can't venture into the afterlife to survey subjects on the death experience.

Heaven and hell and their counterparts in other world religions are cultural faith-based constructs drawn from medieval interpretations of the ancient manuscripts that made the cut into holy text.

Society has indoctrinated us with the conviction that good behavior during our brief life results in an eternal reward. Our laws and religions promote the sanctity of life; yet when our loved ones die, we comfort ourselves by believing that they are in a better place.

Humans have grappled with the death dilemma since the dawn of civilization. We've entombed corpses in pyramids, mounds and marble sepulchers.

We scatter ashes over special places or, in a more recent phenomenon, we might choose a "green" burial by having our unembalmed remains planted without caskets to become one with the Earth again.

However we choose to have our carcasses venerated or desecrated, it seems that many of us find it repugnant that a terminally ill person would exercise autonomy by selecting a date of departure rather than suffering a prolonged death.

The option is neither politically left nor right of center but rather central: one person's decision after consulting with family, doctors and, for those of faith, with a higher power.

It might be many decades before death with dignity is decriminalized in the remaining 45 states as Republicans and Democrats wrestle to make a red or blue issue out of one that is morally gray.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments