19 May 2013

Vermont's new choice for death with dignity

On May 13, the Vermont state legislature passed a bill that legalizes physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients whose suffering has become unbearable but who are capable of making an informed consent on their own behalf. Governor Peter Shumlin has indicated that he will sign the bill into law.

In passing this bill, Vermont becomes the fourth U.S. state to allow physician-assisted suicide, and the first to do so via legislation. Oregon and Washington enacted similar measures via voter referenda in 1994 and 2008, respectively. In Montana, a 2009 court ruling declared it legal.

Opponents of the legislation argue that it could give family members a tool to do away with an inconveniently ill family member and speed up the inheritance process. They seem to ignore the informed consent requirement. And, despite concerns by opponents of the Oregon law who feared that it would lead to a widespread rush to death, that has hardly been the case. In Oregon in 2012, for example, prescriptions for lethal medications were written for a mere 115 patients, resulting in a total of 77 known deaths. That's an average of about 2.35 assisted suicides per 1,000 total deaths in that state. These patients found a quick, painless, and certain end to their intolerable suffering, and were spared weeks or months of agony. And their families were spared the anguish of watching their loved ones suffer a painful and prolonged death.

In addition to these four U.S. states, physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Everywhere else, the terminally ill are forced to endure sometimes horrific pain at the end of life, or end their misery with a plastic bag, a noose, or other undignified means. And those sad, desperate acts will continue as long as so-called "pro-life" factions keep fighting attempts to widen the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and provide more people with the power to choose a dignified death over a horrible, lingering, painful one.

What it boils down to is this: While life is precious and should not be thrown away lightly, modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control in all dying patients, even in the best hospices.

While physicians are pledged to do no harm, is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet becomes ill to the point where it is near death or suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the pet be euthanized, to put the animal out of its misery.

So why do we treat our dying pets with more mercy than we treat our dying people?

I agree with Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the controversial suicide manual "Final Exit", who said: "Surely the right to die in a manner and at a time one's own choosing is the ultimate civil liberty."

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