Assisted Suicide: Liberty or Crime?

The debate over assisted suicide has been re-sparked by terminally ill brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, who died by prescribed lethal overdose. Maynard was given six months to live after being diagnosed. She chose to forego full brain radiation, which would have greatly diminished her quality of life and destroyed the time she had left. Instead, she chose death with dignity.

The preamble of the U.S. Constitution states, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Liberty. Merriam-Webster defines liberty as “the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely.”

Does this liberty extend to the right to die (also known as assisted suicide)?

Brittany Maynard and her bridesmaids at wedding photo courtesy of Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard and her bridesmaids at wedding
photo courtesy of Brittany Maynard

The debate over a person’s right to die is centuries-old. The first case of assisted suicide within the framework of America’s current struggle over the right to die took place in 1990 in Gorveland Oaks Park near Holly, Michigan. Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted Alzheimers patient Janet Adkins with her suicide in his 1968 Volkswagen van. Charges against Kevorkian for murder were dismissed.

Only five states in the United States believe assisted suicide is a human right: Oregon, New Mexico, Montana, Washington, and Vermont. Only in five states is it legal to commit suicide with help from another person, often times a physician, to end suffering from terminal illness.

Oregon was the first state to legalize assisted suicide with the Death With Dignity Act. From 1997, when the Death With Dignity Act was enacted, to 2012, 673 patients in Oregon have died from lethal medications.

Washington was the second state to legalize assisted suicide. The Washington Death With Dignity Act, Initiative 1000 went into effect in 2009. From 2009 to 2013, 525 patients have died taking advantage of this law.

In December 2009, through a State Supreme Court ruling, Montana became the third state to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Montana state health officials do not keep track of the numbers of assisted suicides.

Vermont was the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide in 2013 through the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act. One citizen has taken advantage of Vermont’s law.

In January 2014, New Mexico became the most recent state to rule that terminally ill residents have a constitutional right to assisted suicide.

Contrasting to the mere five states in the United States that allow assisted suicide, 39 states have laws explicitly prohibiting it.

However, there are no federal laws about assisted suicide or euthanasia. Euthanasia is intentionally causing the death of a person, the motive being to relieve that person of further suffering. The key distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide is that the patient is in complete control of the process in assisted suicide because he/she is the person who performs the act of suicide. The other person simply provides the medication.

In order to die with dignity, Maynard had to move from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s end-of-life option for mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

In partnership with the non-profit organization Compassion & Choices, Maynard launched a campaign to give terminally ill patients the right to physician-assisted suicide and to explain her decision to end her life via Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

Maynard died on November 1, 2014, as the first public face of the controversial right-to-die movement.

In an article, Maynard wrote, “I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.”

She asks, “Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?”

While Compassion & Choices supported Maynard and her decision, many people also opposed her choice.

Pope Francis called assisted suicide a “false sense of compassion.” He continued, “This is playing with life….Beware, because this is a sin against the creator, against God the creator.”

Other critics include Chaplain Adele M. Gill, who wrote on Catholic Online, “I struggle to even think of this woman’s plan to end her own life prematurely, as courageous. Because it is not. Rather it is anything but. In fact, in my mind, it is a self-destructive act of selfish cowardice to end your own life before God’s perfect timing.”

Clearly, the debate is polarizing. A November 2013 Pew Research Center survey gauged Americans’ view on the topic of assisted suicide. 47% of the American public favored laws that would allow doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, while 49% of the American public opposed these laws.

However, there are substantial differences regarding end-of-life medical treatment across racial lines.

65% of whites say they would stop their medical treatment if they had an incurable disease versus the 61% of blacks and 55% of Hispanics who say that they would tell their doctors to do everything possible to save their lives.

The debate over assisted suicide comes down to the definition of liberty. The American Constitution secures “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Put simply, some people believe death is a liberty, while others believe death is a crime.

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