Recent death sparks euthanasia debate

Five states have passed Death with Dignity laws.

Following the death of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the media has been abuzz with both the story of her life as well as the nature of her death.

Maynard, instead of waiting for her prognostic six months of life to expire, chose to end her life on her “own terms.”

This death on one’s “own terms” is referred to as Death with Dignity, a program with a national center that was formed out of a “profound commitment to the idea that personal end-of-life decisions should be made solely between a patient and a physician,” as stated on the Death with Dignity National Center website.

Presently in the United States, a total of five states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana — have passed Death with Dignity laws. Most recently, a sixth has begun the legislative process, with New Jersey’s state assembly passing its own version of the law on Nov. 13.

"Like society, medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since a similar piece of legislation was introduced in 1978,” New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli said in a statement on the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office website. “While there are many choices available right now that may be right for certain people, there is one more choice, not currently available, that deserves an honest discussion."

As increasing awareness has been brought to the public, and more states are having this aforementioned “discussion.” One organization, Compassion and Choices, has been working to promote aid-in-dying legislation.

“Compassion and Choices’ End-Of-Life Consultation program helps mentally competent, terminally ill adults, as well as those who just want to plan ahead, to understand their peaceful options at life’s end,” said Sean Crowley, Media Relations Manager for Compassion and Choices.

According to a May 2014 Gallup survey, 70 percent of Americans support allowing doctors to "end the (terminally ill) patient's life by some painless means,” but only 59 percent support doctors helping a terminally ill patient "commit suicide.”

This 11-point difference indicated that the term “assisted suicide” is “inaccurate, biased and pejorative in this context,” Crowley said.

A considerable portion of Americans who have taken stances against the advancement of Death with Dignity across the nation have done so on a religious basis, according to the Death with Dignity National Center.

Aid-in-dying laws allow a terminally ill patient to “hasten an inevitable and unavoidable death. It's not suicide nor euthanasia; rather, a possible option if the pain from the underlying illness gets to be too much or quality of life too degraded,” according to the Death with Dignity National Center Religion and Spirituality information page.

The Death with Dignity laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont outline that actions taken in accordance with the act won’t, for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide under the law, Crowley said.

With regards to religious standpoints on the practice of aid in dying, some faiths have offered statements of support while others have taken the stance of withholding contempt.

The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist faith have issued pro-choice statements with regard to physician-assisted death.

The Anglican Church has stated that, although it recognizes physician-assisted death presents a “strong, compassionate case,” its church will remain opposed to the practice.

American Baptist Churches have adopted a policy of advocacy for increased care to be taken in allowing for dignity with death, while Southern Baptists and the Catholic Church have taken a firm stance against physician-assisted or “hastened” death.

A Missouri Lutheran Church located in Kansas City issued a statement for the Death with Dignity National Center writing, "Advocates of euthanasia, as well as of assisted suicide, have sought to justify the taking of human life on moral grounds by describing it as a truly compassionate act aimed at the relief of human suffering. In light of what the Scriptures say about the kind of care God wills that we provide to those who suffer and are facing death, we reject such claims as neither compassionate nor caring.”

The church went on to write that “Christians aim always to care, never to kill."

Regardless of religious viewpoints and stances, statewide polls conducted by PURPLE Strategies Group for Compassion and Choices in February indicated that a majority of voters in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey in fact support the legality of allowing mentally-competent, terminally-ill patients to bring about their own death, and a vast majority of people would like to be given the legal option to end their own lives should they ever find themselves in that situation.

“National and state polls consistently show the vast majority of Americans across the demographic and political spectrum want to maintain their right to choose their medical treatment at the end of their life,” Crowley said.

According to a Compassion and Choices study, the current policy of making Death with Dignity illegal “poses a risk to physicians” while simultaneously denying “quality care” to patients.

Palliative care studies estimate that anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of terminally ill patients experience labored respiration, vomiting and pain that cannot be controlled without sedation or unconsciousness.

The Compassion and Choices study also indicated that doctors provide aid in about one in every 250 deaths nationwide, which is four times the rate at which these practices occur in the state of Oregon alone, where aid in dying is legal.

“The current policy supports this covert practice by ignoring its existence,” the study stated. “Secrecy increases the risk of felony prosecution and loss of medical licensure for doctors who don’t know what else to do.”

In the same vein, 53 percent of AIDS doctors in San Francisco reported issuing lethal prescriptions per patient request.

Death with Dignity is not a legal practice in California.

In the case of Missouri, the state allows for the terminally ill to terminate their artificial nutrition and hydration, so long as the wish to end their treatment is proven with “clear” and “convincing” evidence outlined in the case of Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health.

Currently, Missouri state law prohibits the practice of aid in dying. According to the State-by-State Guide to Physician-Assisted Suicide, Missouri is not alone, though, and joins 37 other states with active laws prohibiting the these procedures.

“Even in states without an explicit legal framework for aid in dying, no one must suffer needlessly,” Crowley said. “Options exist, supported in law and medicine throughout the nation, enabling people to face the end of life in relative comfort and harmony with their values.”

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