Imagine a patient confined to his bed. He is suffering through the last stages of a terminal illness; heavily sedated so that he does not have to experience the intolerable pain associated with end-stage cancer.
James Powell was one of these patients. He succumbed to his illness at the age of 82 but not by natural causes. Powell took his own life by taking lethal medications prescribed to him by his physician. It was legal because of a law that Powell, himself, helped to pass.
The Death With Dignity Act was passed in 1997. The law makes it legal for terminally ill patients to choose to end their lives using lethal medications prescribed to them by their physician. Laws like this have been passed in Washington and Montana. Supporters in Massachusetts have been working to get a Death With Dignity Act onto the 2012 election ballot.
In order to use this law in Oregon, the person must be 18 or over and terminally ill, with 6 months or less to live. They must be a resident of the state and in sound state of mind. The patient must give an oral request for their decision to use the lethal medications to their physician on two different occasions. The doctor must confirm that the patient is coherent and not suffering form any mind distorting ailments, like dementia.
Opponents of the Death With Dignity Act fear that it may push patients into making decisions based on the way others feel. They also fear that this law perpetuates a widely popular view that the old and disabled are not worth saving while the young are.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement saying that terminally ill patients should be given counseling and treatment to deter them from wanting to die. They believe that patients should be given supportive and palliative care to be able to cope with the emotional and physical pain associated with their terminal illness.
The passage of these laws calls into question a physician’s duty to save lives and to “first do no harm.” If a patient has only a few months to live and is given palliative treatment why help them commit suicide? Is it about saving the taxpayers’ money? Is it up to the physicians to decide who lives and who dies? Is committing suicide really “dying with dignity?”
There are so many questions that remain to be answered. Gallop polls show that the nation is split on physician-assisted suicide. Only time will tell whether or not more of these laws will be passed in other states and if physician-assisted suicide will become more widely accepted as the elderly population increases and people live longer.
Source: CNN.com, gallup.com
Photo Credit: seattletimes.nwsource.com