Watching a loved one struggle with a terminal illness is the worst nightmare to some and a stark reality to others. We all hope for an end that comes with dignity and choice, yet not everyone is ensured this simple wish. With California recently joining the very small group of states that have legalized physician-assisted suicide, it is interesting to take a closer look at this controversial issue and the debate that it has stirred up for decades. What is physician assisted suicide? Is it a compassionate vow to protect a person’s dignity or a deterioration of our society’s care for the terminally ill?
Currently only five states have legalized assisted suicide—Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and, now, California. On the other hand 41 states have specifically stated that this is an illegal course of action. General polling has shown that overall the country is almost evenly divided in its opinion; it’s fair to say that this is a complex issue that carries many implications with it.
Firstly, let’s consider what has thus far been established as regulation around the process. The person requesting assistance must be terminally ill, they must be judged as being of sound mind and they must be dying within six months of their request. Though it is not required, in most cases the individual’s family and primary care physician are also aware and supportive of the decision.
At first glance, there is little wrong with these stipulations. After all, it is entirely consensual, there is clear reason for the action and, ultimately, if death is inevitable, why shouldn’t we empower the person with so little choice with just a little bit of it?
Yet detractors pose interesting concerns. Does this devalue the life of some elderly or disabled persons? Does having the option mean that there might be room to take advantage? That some terminally ill individuals may feel that they are a “burden” and thus be somewhat pressured to make this decision prematurely? Then there is the matter of putting this kind of power within the grasp of certain medical professionals; the medication required for a lethal injection is, obviously, quite scary—does it then make sense to loosen the regulation around it?
There may be no easy answer, but consider where you stand. Why do you stand there? If you are an opponent, consider your opinions through the lens of a suffering person—why should you not have the right to make your own decision? Does your decision somehow threaten the right of others to make their own choice? On the other hand, if you are a proponent of assisted death, consider that the issue is not quite as black-and-white as it may first appear; are there perhaps ways of safeguarding the process to address the concerns of the other side?
In fact, safeguards are not beyond the realm of possibility. As it now exists, physician assisted suicide has very simple regulations, but there is room to make them more stringent. For example, creating advanced directives can ensure that there is less pressure put on the individual to make a decision that is contradictory to their wishes. Furthermore, having a trail of documentation from several medical professionals can ensure that if a person does choose to die, it is truly their only option. When an issue is as complicated and emotionally charged as assisted suicide, it is sometimes hard to find a middle—yet a middle may be found yet!