COLUMN: Patients should have the choice to die with dignity
In response to a patient’s wish to die with dignity, the infamous Dr. House notoriously replied, “You can live with dignity; you can’t die with it!”
Comparable remarks were debated recently in Massachusetts, where a new initiative known as the Death with Dignity Act had the potential to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.
Unfortunately on Election Day, Massachusetts residents determined doctors do not have the right to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally-ill patients requesting to die, ensuring a continuation of those patients’ suffering.
Terminal illness was defined as an individual with six months or less to live. The act required patients to be in a stable state of mind capable of rational decision making as confirmed by a second doctor. Patients also would be required to make one request to die in writing and two separate oral requests 15 days apart.
If passed, the Death with Dignity Act would have been a major victory for the American right-to-die movement. This is primarily because of the influential role Massachusetts has within health care. The reverberations of the Death with Dignity Act had the potential to make euthanasia a cultural norm.
Whereas bills of a similar nature had polarizing effects both politically and culturally, the polarization of the proposal especially was felt within Massachusetts, where 42 percent of the population is Catholic.
The Catholic Church is known for its vehement pro-life views and the recent Death with Dignity Act was no exception.
But there were arguments on both sides that were not strictly religious in nature. Supporters of the act argued the value of life is marked by the capacity to enjoy life and that the Death with Dignity Act would allow assistance in ending a life that is not worth having.
On the other hand, opponents invoked slippery slope arguments. The terminally-ill are often incapable of making a rational decision because of depression. And superfluous deaths could occur because of a misdiagnosis by even the most competent doctors.
This often is thought to be the knock-down argument against euthanasia. If euthanasia were legalized, even with the constraints imposed upon the Death with Dignity Act, a few worthwhile lives likely would be terminated.
However, by the same token, if euthanasia were not legalized, an undeniably large amount of unnecessary suffering would follow. A longer life is not necessarily a better life.
Another argument against the Death with Dignity Act is the pain experienced by the terminally-ill often can be alleviated. Some patients, given the right medication, are capable of living their remaining life comfortably.
It is true that given the appropriate medication, terminally ill patients can have a worthwhile life for whatever short time remains.
Unfortunately, only a very small fraction of patients receive this kind of medication. Nor does this take into account pain that isn’t necessarily physical, such as uncontrollable bowel movement, nausea, starvation and vomiting.
A final argument against euthanasia is the Death with Dignity Act ensures too much freedom. For instance, drug dealers are prosecuted for providing noxious substances to society. Because thwarting the intentional inoculation of noxious drugs is regarded as a permissible restriction upon freedom, so too is the prevention of suicide.
The difficultly with this argument is it ignores whether there are rational reasons for suicide given certain conditions. In response to these concerns, certain measures are taken by the Death with Dignity Act in order to ensure an informed rational decision based upon the best medical knowledge available.
If passed, the Death with Dignity Act would have been a major step forward in health care ethics. Unfortunately, the right to die will not be regarded as a cultural norm in Massachusetts — let alone Oklahoma — for quite some time.
Nathan Cranford is a philosophy senior.