SIEGEL: Give people the right to die with dignity

All states should permit physician-assisted suicide

In June of this year, California implemented the End of Life Option Act in an effort to permit “terminally ill adult patients with capacity to make medical decisions to be prescribed an aid-in-dying medication if certain conditions are met.” Within the past year, the aid in dying movement, otherwise known as physician-assisted suicide, has slowly but surely advanced — California was the fifth state, alongside Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana, to permit this policy, taking a step forward in the campaign to allow patients to have the power to end their lives on their own terms. As the times have changed, how we die has also changed, so we must follow suit and change the standards surrounding assisted death in states across the country. We should legalize physician-assisted dying so the patients may retain some amount of control over their death. The greatest contenders of this advancement are the doctors themselves; it is time that they jump on board with the assisted suicide movement in an effort to let the suffering more freely determine their fate.

Death is inevitable. It’s something human beings have a tremendously hard time talking about and, more notably, accepting. Our society’s taboo against talking about death and dying is harmful to our process of living — we leave it up to “experts” to figure everything out for us when the time comes, letting the culmination of our lives rest in the hands of another. Haider Javed Warraich, fellow in cardiovascular medicine at Duke, recalls a conversation with one of his patients who requested that he kindly let him go in the event that his heart stops, for he believes “there are worse states than death.”

Yet, doctors’ continued resistance to assisted suicide denies each and every one of us of our right to die. The argument that physicians have the utmost duty to do no harm is a thinly made fabric stretched to shreds, for “medical harm is already one of the leading causes of death” apart from assisted suicide. Echoing Dr. Warraich, “Isn’t preventing patients from dying on their own terms its own form of medical harm?” Simply the option of regaining “a semblance of control over their lives as disease, disability and the medical machine tries to wrest it away from them,” gives patients a peace of mind that the thought of death cannot always provide. In Oregon, 35 percent of the very few patients who have requested assisted suicide in the past 18 years do not end up actually following through and using it. It is a means of reassurance, a means of jurisdiction.

The resistance to assisted dying stems from tradition and the unwillingness to change with the times. Doctor Warraich explains how the Hippocratic oath is becoming increasingly harder for doctors to translate, as what is meant by “do no harm” in this day in age is different than what was meant even a few years ago. With breakthroughs in medicine and technology, the lines are beginning to blur. As the tools for keeping people alive improve, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for a patient to die without a doctor putting an end to life support. The current legal methods do not differ tremendously from active euthanasia. Warraich affirms that his administration of terminal sedation “felt closer to active euthanasia than assisted suicide would have.”

The current stigma surrounding physician-assisted dying is mistakenly rooted in the past; it implies this method would validate the horrors of eugenic sterilization from the times of Nazi Germany. To counter this stigma, medical schools should begin a conversation with students about all facets of the end of life much earlier in their education pathway. This topic is often neglected, creating a myopic view of a complex subject.

This is not to be mistaken as a sales pitch for euthanasia. Yet, I do believe that patients should have the option to seek this method if they so desire, for it is their personal choice in the end. In his TED Talk, Peter Saul acknowledges the apparent shift in the way that people die, concluding that we should have meaningful conversations about death and dying with the elderly. We need to ask them what they want, and if they think it is their time to go, they should have the right in every state to make that decision for themselves and die knowing they had control through the very end. Respect for life and respect for independent individual choice must weigh in the conversation of how we view the ultimate choice: how to gracefully plan our exit.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at l.siegel@cavalierdaily.com.

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