If you’ve been listening to the news you will have undoubtedly heard rumblings about something called the “Death with Dignity Act” and a 29 year old woman named Brittany Maynard with terminal cancer who plans to ingest a lethal medication next month to ensure that she dies peacefully, with family surrounding her.
This concept of physician-assisted suicide is very controversial, and something we should all be aware of for the sake of conversation as well as to prepare for future debates on this issue.
First the facts. There are three states that allow for physician-assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Oregon was the first, enacting the Death with Dignity Act in 1997. The DWDA allows residents of Oregon 18 years or older who have been certified by two physicians to have a terminal prognosis of less than 6 months and who are communicative and of sound mind, to obtain a lethal prescription from a physician which they may ingest on their own accord with the specific purpose of causing death.
Last year 122 prescriptions were written in Oregon. From the data, usually between 60-70% of those written a prescription will actually use it to cause death. The prescription is usually a barbiturate and data so far has shown it has taken between 5 minutes and nearly 6 hours to die after ingestion.
Brittany Maynard is just one of many who have chosen to die in this way. So why all the media attention now? For one, Brittany is only 29 years old. The average age for DWDA patients last year was 71. She also has made her story public, posting a video online as well as doing interviews. However, it’s more than her age and the media attention, I think her story strikes a nerve and forces us to address common fears that surround the idea of death.
Cut away all of the hype, emotions, and narrative and at the core, what death with dignity is really about is autonomy and control. In fact, 93% of DWDA patients say loss of autonomy is a reason they chose to end their life. Other factors DWDA patients mention as reasons for participating is loss of quality of life and loss of dignity.
I find it interesting that these are issues hospice is designed to address. The idea behind hospice is to increase quality of life, improve dignity and add autonomy. However, what hospice will not do is interfere with the natural process at hand by hastening death, as the DWDA allows.
Ms. Maynard said in an interview that it is a “relief that I don’t have to die the way it’s been described to me”. As a hospice physician who has cared for innumerable patients with her type of cancer it appears she’s misinformed. With aggressive symptom management and all the tools hospice provides, the natural progression of the disease and dying should be peaceful.
Her statement though reminds us of what the underlying fear is shadowing the autonomy, dignity, and quality of life concepts surrounding the DWDA, which is the fear of suffering. Why have a prescription that gives you the ultimate autonomy over death unless the threat of the loss of that autonomy is causing suffering?
As with most heated debates, this one comes down to values. What has higher value, life or autonomy? Moreover, should suffering be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of life itself? Your answer to these questions will place you on one side or the other of this controversial debate.