Witnessing the death of a loved one is a difficult experience. When watching someone suffer, we often suffer ourselves — even if not physically.
Hope tells us the suffering can end and that life can one day go back to how it was. But when there is no hope of recovery, one is left wondering what the options are for easing the pain of a loved one.
Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old cancer patient, made a hard decision on how to deal with her terminal brain cancer on Nov. 1. Given six months to live, she and her husband moved to Oregon from California, where she was able to request medication to end the long, painful process of dying.
Oregon is one of three states in which physician-assisted suicide is legal; residents who are diagnosed as terminally ill and with less than six months to live may receive medical assistance in dying. While some other states have some protections for physicians that provide death-inducing medication for terminally ill patients, it is considered a felony in most states.
Suicide is a sensitive subject and is viewed negatively in most circumstances. However, in the case of Maynard and others like her, being able to have some control over death may be the only comfort left.
Not all are supportive of Maynard’s decision to take her life into her own hands. Father Ignacio Carrasco de Paula of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life described assisted suicide “an absurdity” and expressed concern that the movement could risk leading society to abandon the ill and elderly.
Pope Francis denounced the right-to-die movement as misled by a “false sense of compassion.”
Computer science freshman Andrew Talbert said he believes the terminally ill ought to be allowed to make the decision for themselves, regardless of how others might feel.
“I don’t think we should impose our own morals on those who are in real pain and have no hope of recovery,” Talbert said. “Doctors and patients should make the decision together. If I was dying and in pain, I wouldn’t want to suffer because ending my own life would hurt society’s feelings.”
Some merit may be found in both views of the subject. Personal feelings alone should not dictate someone else’s actions. If someone’s actions do not affect anyone other than themselves, these actions shouldn’t be considered illegal.
But doctor-assisted suicide does carry a risk for society. Although it is not fair nor appropriate to call Maynard’s actions an “absurdity,” the concern of falling down a slippery slope is legitimate.
Doctors hold an oath to do no harm to their patients, but euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide have dangerous potential to put those oaths at risk.
In the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, there are already issues and debate over whether or not to extend euthanasia to those with depression, psychological suffering and children. Last year in Belgium, two deaf twins elected to be euthanized after they learned they would soon lose their eyesight.
While proponents might claim that Oregon’s law will not be abused or extended past those who are terminally ill, there is no guarantee. Legalizing doctor assisted suicide risks extensions into morally gray territory.
Andy Talbert said he believes suicide in non-terminal cases is not something that ought to be encouraged or endorsed.
“People’s problems can be fixed, but you can’t fix being dead,” Talbert said. “Chances are, if people feel like they have a decent chance of surviving (an illness), they aren’t going to end their own life. But, of course, doctors shouldn’t give the option if someone comes in with the flu.”
Despite the risks that legalizing euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide may bring, there are still the rare cases where palliative or hospice care do not properly address the suffering of terminally ill patients. Most people who attempt suicide will not go on to commit it at a later time, due to a change of heart. Because of this, suicide or euthanasia ought not to be the first option for those in pain.
Hospice care is the proper treatment for most terminal cases. Unlike hospice care, doctor-assisted suicide is an irreversible act that carries a risk of being done improperly.
It is a final option for those who cannot find comfort in hospice. If assisted suicide is to be embraced, it needs to be done cautiously.
Assisted suicide may be the right option for the most difficult cases of terminal illness, but it ought to be used only rarely and extremely carefully.
Opinion columnist Shane Brandt is a petroleum engineering senior and may be reached at [email protected].