Death with dignity has been prominent in the news recently, primarily because of the high profile case of Brittany Maynard. Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor called a glioblastoma earlier this year. After much thought and research, and having educating herself extensively about her illness and its prospects, she decided to end her life on her own terms. Quietly and at home surrounded by family and friends, she did just that on November 1. Maynard spent much of the last weeks of her life advocating for death with dignity laws. Much notice was taken of her advocacy both because of the immediacy and intimacy of the issue to her own life, as well as her engagement with a wide audience through her use of social media.
Maynard became a high profile case for the death with dignity in the first place largely though her own efforts through Facebook and other social media. She became the face for death with dignity legislation, which is already law in three states. Two other states have similar laws to protect physicians who participate in death with dignity acts, and death with dignity bills have currently been introduced in seven other states. It’s clearly an issue that is gaining traction.
As you might imagine, death with dignity laws also have many critics that base their objection on religious concerns. Predictably, right to life groups have been out in the media recently also, voicing opposition to death with dignity legislation. However, some of the opposition has come from less polarized groups that have a more rational basis to their arguments. Ira Byock, of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence Health and Services, spoke out against it, saying, “When doctor-induced death becomes an accepted response to the suffering of dying people, logical extensions grease the slippery slope.” His “slippery slope” apparently referring to the ethical slippery slope involved in such questions as, “What constitutes a terminal illness?” “And just who can we say is mentally competent to make such decisions?” You can read more about his opinion and about other oppositions to death with dignity legislation at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/10/06/expanding-the-right-to-die/doctor-assisted-suicide-is-unethical-and-dangerous
Public opinion is also divided, but the results of questionnaires and polls depend largely on how the question is framed. Seventy percent of Americans were in favor of allowing physicians to “end a patient’s life by some painless means,” but only 51 percent were in support of allowing doctors to help a patient “commit suicide.” These are two very different ways of understanding the issue.
It seems that much more education on the subject will be needed before the general public will be ready for a rational, civil, and compassionate conversation on this very important and timely issue – one that absolutely affects everyone at some point. I encourage our community to become more informed and knowledgeable about death with dignity so that we might make a meaningful contribution to the dialogue.
Grace and Peace,