Let’s talk about euthanasia. No, not the youth in Asia, but euthanasia—intentionally causing the death of a person with the motive being to prevent that person from suffering further. You may have heard of Brittany Maynard this past year. Maynard was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal brain cancer at the age of twenty nine. She had initially gotten surgery to remove the tumor, but unfortunately it grew back ten times more aggressive. Her doctors gave her a prognosis of six months to live—six drudging months of intense radiation with side effects of hair loss, first-degree burns, and psychological agony. What she did next is something that a lot of people don’t have the strength or courage to do. She refused medical treatment. She wanted to die while she was still aware of the people around her. She didn’t want to live out the rest of her life in pain and with the people around her suffering as well. She wanted to die with dignity.
Currently in the United States, euthanasia is illegal. Only five states, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Washington, and Vermont have legalized assisted suicide. The difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia is the way in which the lethal medication is delivered. In assisted suicide, the patient gives themselves the fatal dose, while in euthanasia the patient’s physician administers the dose.
The state we all live in, New York, has not legalized assisted suicide or euthanasia. If you or someone you know was diagnosed with a terminally ill disease and wanted to end the pain and misery, you wouldn’t be able to have that choice. If I were ever in that type of situation, I would one hundred percent want the right to choose when to end my suffering. It’s the basic principle of autonomy—you have the right to make decisions for yourself.
Every person in this country has rights: a right to speech, learn, love, live; so they should have a right to die with their mind still intact as well. If a terminally ill person wants to avoid excruciating pain and wants to end their life in a dignified manner, it is implied in the concept of liberty. The right to exercise euthanasia is something one can choose for themselves, and the courts should have as much a say in this matter as they do in matters such as marriage, family relationships, procreation, and the refusal or termination of life-saving medical treatment. We are said to live in a free country where we can make our own decisions, but are we really free if we cannot even make the choice to live or not live our own lives?
Most people would be surprised to think economics factors into their life-or-death decisions, and rightly so. However, there’s no getting around how absurdly expensive end-of-life care is in America. According to CNN, one in every four Medicare dollars spent goes to the five percent of beneficiaries in the last year of their life. The outcome of this is often crippling debt for the families of terminally ill patients. The care of a single individual at the end of their life costs an estimated $39,000. For 40 percent of households, the bill exceeds their financial resources. This might be acceptable if end-of-life care was worth the money, but it’s usually not. Whether you like it or not, miracles are rare. Doctors will readily attest to the ability of modern medicine to slightly prolong life—at the cost of totally destroying its quality. End-of-life care is often brutal, nasty, traumatic, and very expensive. This type of care puts patients through long stretches of unnecessary suffering just to give them an extra month or two. When the terminally ill patient undergoing these horrid, expensive treatments has repeatedly insisted that they’d rather be dead, you have to start wondering who all this expenditure is really benefiting.
The famous saying “do no harm” is a basic summary of the Hippocratic Oath—an ancient code designed to lead doctors in their courses of action. Many people interpret this to mean “do nothing to harm the patient’s chances of survival.” But taken literally, it could just as easily mean, “don’t unnaturally keep someone alive when death is preferable.” It all comes down to what we believe establishes “harm.” When a patient is in intense pain or suffering severe mental anguish, our society could be doing more harm by keeping them alive than allowing them to die. In extreme cases, it could be argued that any physician who didn’t alleviate the person’s suffering when asked was violating the principles of their oath and allowing both great harm and a great injustice to occur on their watch. Is this what we want for physicians and for ourselves in the area we call home—the place we feel most safe?
In order to try to make a change in New York State, we have to consider propositions for regulating euthanasia. For safeguards to be meaningful and effective, they have to involve investigations of the patient’s psyche, family dynamics, and the financial implications of the patient’s death. We would also have to take into account more obvious things such as the patient’s medical condition and the likely course of the disease. In order to ensure that requests are properly considered by the patient, the family, and the physician, decisions need to build in a time period that could also account for possible reconsideration. Proper regulation must also ensure that the patient was receiving good care before a request for euthanasia is considered in order to keep physicians from going down a “slippery slope”. Although these procedures are time consuming and expensive, that does not mean that they are impractical. Places like the Netherlands, Belgium, and even some states in the United States have had successful ratings of euthanasia or assisted suicide. This means that euthanasia can be regulated and implemented properly…so why can’t we bring this idea to New York?
Most of us fear death, but a large part of that fear comes from uncertainty and the worry that it might be preceded by agonizing pain. If we knew exactly when we were going to die—and knew for a fact it would be painless—it’s a fair bet that fear would be felt less. By allowing people to choose the how and when of their death, we’re guaranteeing that they will live what remaining life they have to the fullest and free from the pain of anxiety. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s author Terry Pratchett saying pretty much the exact same thing. After being diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s, the writer became an avid campaigner for euthanasia. He said, “As I have said, I would like to die peacefully with Thomas Tallis on my iPod before the disease takes me over and I hope that will not be for quite some time to come, because if I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.” At the end of the day, it’s up for us to decide whether we can sit back and watch people suffer or choose to do something about it.