In the article, Death and Dignity – A Case of Individualized Decision Making, by Dr. Timothy E. Quill, the author asserts that the issues surrounding physician assisted suicide are complicated and should be considered in the context of giving terminally ill patients the most dignity possible during the final months of their lives so that they may die with the least amount of suffering possible.
Currently the laws of all states except Oregon forbid physician assisted suicide, or euthanasia, as it is technically known. The moral and ethical considerations of this topic, are very complex and highly personal, but should be addressed by society as a whole. Many physicians secretly assist their terminal patients with their requests for barbiturates and pain killers to ease the terror and pain of dying. The Hemlock Society argues for the legalization of euthanasia to free it from the stigmatization that secrecy lends. Many terminal patients who choose this route face death alone, or with ill equipped family members. Doctors are faced with many difficult decisions when they choose to help either directly or indirectly, the loss of medical licenses, expulsion from their profession, and even criminal charges are chief amongst them. All of these aspects of euthanasia also bring to the forefront the essential question; do we as individual deserve to decide how and when we die, and what does the answer to that question say about our society?
Euthanasia is very difficult subject to have hard and clear opinions about, most people believe in compassion and ease of suffering, but how does one define dignity or justify suicide? In our current legal environment, many people are suffering needlessly and alone through death, when they could be tenderly cared for and treated with dignity. In the following statement, “Suffering can be lessened to some extent, but in no way eliminated or made benign, by the careful intervention of a competent, caring physician, given current social constraints.” the author reveals his belief that terminally ill patients do indeed deserve a dignified death. Quill goes on to say, “Prolonged dying can occasionally be peaceful, but more often the role of the physician and the family is limited to lessening but not eliminating severe suffering.” Here I believe that he arguing for the use of barbiturates and pain killers administered in a compassionate way to lessen the pain and terror of death. This article also supports the idea that in the current atmosphere of hostile jurisprudence many people are cut off from their family and friends and left to make these hard decisions alone, this is clearly evidenced in the following passage:
“I wonder whether Diane struggled in that last hour, and whether the Hemlock Society’s way of death by suicide is the most benign. I wonder why Diane, who gave so much to so many of us, had to be alone for the last hour of her life.”
The conclusion seems to be that such a death, while self directed may be less than fully dignified.
I for one fully support the right of terminal patients to choose euthanasia, as a viable alternative to prolonged suffering. If our society can learn to face death honestly and without fear, perhaps we will begin to value life as more precious gift. Perhaps a death free from terror and pain could lead us to consider the deeper questions death brings. Questions such as, what is dignity, and who deserves it, why do we fear the inevitable and what is really on the other side, if anything at all. When we begin to treat the dying with dignity and value the importance of lessening suffering for terminally ill patients, then and perhaps only then we will begin to treat the living with dignity and value the lessening of suffering for all individuals. As novel as it may seem I honestly believe that we can have a society based on compassion and that dignity for the dying can lead us there.
Society must confront these difficult decisions and codify them into law. Ignoring this subject will lead to more secret death, more individuals needlessly suffering alone. Dignity is something we all deserve in life and in death, whether by natural causes or assisted in physician sanctioned fully legal dying centers. The time has come for humanity to grow up and fearlessly face that fate that awaits us all. I hope that others will join me and Dr. Quill in support of compassionate euthanasia.