A 29-year-old California woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer made national headlines for her decision to end her life by taking a prescribed lethal medication on Nov. 1.
After being given six months to live, Brittany Maynard opted to undergo assisted suicide— “die with dignity”—a controversial practice that only three states in the U.S. permit. Maynard was diagnosed with brain cancer on New Year’s Day, and doctors described her impending death to her as inevitably painful. She then made the decision to end her life on her own terms and moved from San Francisco to Oregon, one of the few states that has an assisted suicide program.
Maynard’s story has drawn both support and criticism. Until faced with a terminal illness, one cannot begin to comprehend Maynard’s experience and the difficulty of making such a choice. Instead, Maynard’s story proves that all terminally ill individuals should have the right to decide how they spend their last moments of life.
“Dying with dignity” should be legalized nationally with the recognition that terminally ill individuals are capable of making rational decisions.
The three states that authorize “death with dignity” are Oregon, Washington and Vermont. The states require that only residents with less than six months to live are eligible to undergo assisted suicide, according to the Death with Dignity National Center. Before being given the lethal medication, the individuals are mentally assessed and must prove they are capable of communicating their own health decisions. The medication is given after two verbal requests and one written request to the physician. The person can rescind his or her requests at any time, and the medication must be self-administered.
Considering the negative connotation of suicide, it is understandable that only three states have legalized assisted suicide. However, assisted suicide is different in the sense that the individual is terminally ill and the programs assess candidates’ mental state thoroughly. Assisted suicide provides those with looming death the freedom to choose how and when they will die. People have the right to do what they want with their body in both life and in death.
Because only three states legalize assisted suicide, some physicians in other states will educate terminally ill patients on lethal medications “in code,” according to an Oct. 18 NBC website article. Medications can be even more painful if taken improperly. To avoid instances such as this, assisted suicide should be legalized nationally.
Challengers of assisted suicide argue that by legalizing assisted suicide, the dying will feel like they now have a duty to die, according to the National Right to Life, an organization that opposes assisted suicide laws. This mentality can be avoided if the states legalize it in such a way that it is only done when it is clearly a patient’s personal choice and they are psychologically assessed.
This is not to say that such treatment is suitable for everyone. According to the Oregon Public Health Division, 122 people were prescribed lethal medication in 2013, but only 71 people actually accounted for assisted suicide deaths that year. Since the law was passed in 1997, 752 people have died from “death with dignity” prescriptions, accounting for less than 1 percent of Oregon deaths.
This option is clearly not for everyone, but it is having it available that is key. Providing the dying with options allows people to freely decide what they want to do with their bodies. It also has the potential to change taboo notions of what it means to want to die: In some instances of looming death, it is a brave choice that anyone should be allowed to make.