Euthanasia should be considered an option for some patients

By Lisa Wardle

While health care progresses along with science and technology, the ethical decisions surrounding quality of life only evolve slowly. We are far from curing all of the diseases that remain the cause of many painful deaths, but we’re also unwilling to fully legalize euthanasia for individuals who may suffer for years.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported findings of 54 individuals deemed to be in either a vegetative state or a minimally conscious state. One of the individuals tested was able to respond to simple questions with “yes” and “no” answers, which were deciphered through monitoring brain activity with MRI scans.

Though this is but one patient out of 54, results from this study are likely to be used as proof for both sides of the quality of life argument. The patient was able to listen, interpret questions and function mentally—a fact that may give people unnecessary hope in similar situations. At the same time, this method of MRI interpretations could be accurately used to ask some patients if they are in pain or wish to progress with treatment.

Doctor-assisted suicide is currently legal in the states of Oregon, Montana and Washington. There is a point when some people no longer desire to live. In the case of those in vegetative states, who are unable to partake in any physical activities including speech, they may wish to die and aren’t able to voice their opinion about the matter. But in the three states where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, conscious people should not hesitate to speak about their desires.

Last summer, doctors found that my mother’s cancer had spread into her bones. All that was left for her to decide were methods of prolonging an imminent death. She now walks with significant strain and can’t do many activities she once enjoyed, though morphine makes it easier to handle the pain caused by activities she still partakes in. She lives in Washington state and sees little point in living after she’s wheelchair-ridden and can’t move without pain, no matter the dose of morphine.

Not everyone is legally able to make the decision to die in such a manner and many people aren’t able to communicate these wishes to doctors and family, but we should provide resources for those who can convey their pain and would truly prefer to end their life.

This debate has been present in legal systems of the U.S. for over a century. In 1906, the first state bill to legalize euthanasia was rejected in Ohio. Other bills have been debated since, and court rulings have both approved and denied the use of euthanasia for specific situations. The sensitive nature of the topic has likely been the cause of its slow progression, but there is demand for doctor-assisted suicide as an option.

Measures should be taken to both ensure patients receive the health care they desire and that euthanasia is not abused. Studies in the 1990s showed patients were more likely to be interested in doctor-assisted suicide for mental reasons than physical pain, though both factors were considered. Opponents argue that these patients should receive psychiatric counseling and mental health care, not lethal medication. But it is important to consider the difference in a depressed teenager who is still physically able to enjoy life, and a terminally ill person who can’t move without pain.

Legalizing euthanasia won’t result in doctors strolling through hospital halls, telling patients with colds that they should consider death. It will not result in every depressed person receiving help in committing suicide. While this country is talking about health care, states should once again consider the benefits of doctor-assisted suicide. It gives power to patients in deciding their fate and may be easier for families to handle than watching a loved one deteriorate.