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"Right to die should be a given, not a rarity"

It's time for Òdeath with dignityÓ to become a national option

Five states – Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico – have what are known as “death with dignity laws,” which legalize physician-assisted suicide.

The practice differs slightly in each state, but essentially, in these five states, patients with a terminal diagnosis who wish to end their own life have the right to do so. Reassuringly, there are multiple requirements and safeguards in place – while terminal patients should have the right to end their own life, in order to do so with a doctor’s assistance, the practice must be highly regulated.

The requirements vary slightly among the five states but all display the same strict regulatory practices. In Oregon – which became the first state to legalize the practice in 1997 – a patient must be at least 18 years old, a resident of Oregon, diagnosed by two physicians with a terminal illness that will cause death within six months and deemed capable to making and communicating health care decisions.

The list of rules goes on: The request for medication must be made at least twice and written down at least once, and the patient must be informed about alternatives, such as hospice and pain management. If, after meeting the regulations, the patient qualifies for the practice, doctors can prescribe lethal drugs that are then self-administered at the patient’s behest.

The practice – despite its intense regulation and importance as a basic human right – has always been contentious, but unlike other sociopolitical dilemmas like gay marriage or abortion, it often fades to the background of public concern. Recently, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard has brought this debate over the legality of physician-assisted suicide back into the public eye.

Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and her doctors informed her in April that she would likely die within six months. In response she made two decisions: That she would move to Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, in order to end her own life, and she would chronicle her story online, in an attempt to change the laws that make physician-assisted suicide illegal in 45 states.

Maynard had the resources and support to move from California to Oregon, and because of that, she’ll be able to take control of her life – and death.

But for the many Americans who wouldn’t have that option – who lack the financial resources or support network, who are too ill to move across state lines or whose families disagree with such an idea – terminal illness results in a painful, protracted experience that ultimately, produces the same result.

It’s understandable that this law raises eyebrows – doctors are viewed lifesavers, not life-enders. That doctors should assist in suicide – a deeply taboo topic that is, in the vast majority of cases, nothing but tragic – seems backwards and wrong.

But the initial discomfort that accompanies this practice should ultimately give way to logic and intelligent consideration – of the experiences of terminally ill patients, of studies that show that legalizing physician assisted suicide would decrease involuntary euthanasia and of the rights of individuals to determine the course of their own lives.

Ultimately, it is a doctor’s responsibility to provide his or her patients with the best care possible. When terminal illness is involved, and life cannot be preserved, all that remains is mercy – an end to pain and suffering and a final moment of empowerment.


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