Imagine being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. This incurable illness of the brain first manifests itself as low-level weakness and muscle atrophy. Soon you are unable to stand, get in and out of bed, speak, or swallow food. You depend on loved ones and professional caregivers for such basic tasks as eating, bathing, and going to the bathroom. You are, in essence, a prisoner within your own body: fully conscious of the outside world, but unable to interact with it.
Imagine the insufferable frustration of knowing there is a way to end the anguish, depression, and indignity—but it is illegal. This is the plight of many Americans who suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease or such other debilitating illnesses as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. For these individuals, one of the only chances at deliverance from their torture is physician-assisted suicide.
Yet in most states, this option is against the law.
Opposition to physician-assisted suicide is understandable in the abstract. For many of us, death is something to be avoided at all costs, even when faced with the most dire prospects. The debate over physician-assisted suicide is really about the right of responsible adults to control their own lives. But physician-assisted suicide is not just an interesting, abstract topic for discussion. Real people right now spend every minute of every day in agony. Such adults, afflicted by incurable and unrelenting pain, should, if determined competent to decide, have the right to end their lives.
Demographic shifts are making the legalization of physician-assisted suicide more urgent, particularly when it comes to dementia. With increasing numbers of Americans living into old age, the incidence of such destructive mental illnesses as Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise. Today, more than 100,000 Americans are in the advanced stages of that terminal condition. The disease consumes their minds while their loved witness the unremitting tragedy, which has no cure. Physician-assisted suicide would spare patients and their families the wrenching emotional pain that accompanies their slow, inexorable descent into oblivion.
The typical patient who considers ending her or his own life is afflicted with such an irreversible worsening condition as metastatic cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS ), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or other unbearable neurological affiliction, and has tried all available treatments, in vain. This patient is mentally competent. Ignorance would actually be bliss under these circumstances, but they know the inevitable: that as the disease progresses, their body will deteriorate and communication may be reduced to the lowest limit, further isolating them. What future do they envision? Only the dread of another day of misery, followed by another and another, with each day’s suffering worse.
Though most want to die at home, they likely will take their last breaths in a hospital, attached to tubes in the stomach, arms, and throat. A ventilator breathes for them, rendering them speechless, in terror. Efforts to tear out the tubes result in strapping their hands to the bed, the final indignity for a virtual prisoner.
Fortunately, many states have begun to recognize the basic human right to die with dignity. Washington state and Oregon allow physician-assisted suicide. Montana’s Supreme Court recently ruled it is legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill citizens. And Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation that would permit
Most other states have a long way to go before the essential freedom to die peacefully is recognized. In Georgia, for example, the compassionate work of Final Exit Network (FEN), the organization I represent, has been met with strong opposition by state officials. In March, four of my colleagues were indicted on serious criminal charges simply for providing information about suicide.
To be clear, FEN does not assist suicide nor do we encourage it. Instead, we are committed to supplying information and support to patients as they grapple with the most crucial decision of their lives: to end their misery or wait it out. After discussing their options with Final Exit Network, many patients feel empowered to do the latter.
Sadly, even these First Amendment acts of counsel are under attack. As medical science advances and people live longer, discussion of the freedom to take one’s own life will skyrocket. Just as a true conservative stands for individual liberty, so must state law makers support keeping the government out of people’s private lives—and their deaths.
Jerry Dincin is President of Final Exit Network and is a retired psychologist with more than 30 years of clinical experience. The website for Final Exit Network is finalexitnetwork.org. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.