January 11, 2017
|By Myra Christopher|
I worked late Tuesday night and was listening to NPR as I always do during my short commute home when I heard that, in celebration of his 85th birthday, Bishop Desmond Tutu announced that he supports physician-assisted suicide and “prays that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices that terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth with dignity and love.” I was stunned.
At age 30, I decided to spend my life working to improve end-of-life care and that the way that I would do that would be by “doing ethics.” I would spend my life arguing that the seriously ill and dying have an inherent right to a “dignified death.” This year I will be 70, and I have had a long and interesting career. Over the past 40 years, the issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been what I considered as recurring distractions from what I have thought to be really important, i.e., advancing palliative care. Bishop Tutu’s comments, however, cannot and should not be considered by any one as simply a “distraction.” I believe they are a “game-changer.”
In the late 1990s, I directed Community-State Partnerships to Improve End-of-Life Care
, an $11.25m Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation grant award program. At about the same time, Jack Kevorkian – or Dr. Death as he came to be known – came on to the public scene. At a national conference, I was asked what I thought of Dr. Kevorkian, and I said without hesitating that I thought he was a murderer and should be imprisoned.
Envisioning Other Options
After the conference, a communication officer from the RWJ Foundation asked me if I knew the data regarding public views on physician-assisted suicide. I said that, of course, I did – 50% of Americans were for it and 50% were against it. She said, “You realize that when you made the statement you did that half the audience turned you off,” and then asked me if I could imagine saying something like, “Physician-assisted suicide is something good people disagree about, but what we can all agree upon is that we must do a better job of caring for those who are seriously ill and dying so that they don’t see suicide as their only option.”
That statement made good sense to me and has served me well over the years. To clarify my personal view, I always add that I am against the “legalization” of assisted suicide but would NEVER pass moral judgment on a caring committed physician or loving family member who assisted a patient or loved one to die. Furthermore, I know that it happens all over the United States every day. Years ago, an article titled “It’s Over Debbie” was published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Society) in which a resident anonymously reported having euthanized a young woman in agonal pain dying of a terminal gynecological cancer. I got four calls, two of them from healthcare professionals in Kansas City, telling me that the caller was sure the event had occurred in their own hospital.
Personal Choice and the Slippery Slope
I have shared in private conversations, however, that in certain situations, I would personally choose to end my own life and expect others to help me to do so if I were incapable of acting on my own behalf. I recognize the logical inconsistency of my thoughts and have felt hypocritical from time to time. But because so many people in the U.S. are not insured and do not have access to healthcare, especially good end-of-life care, and because we know without question that certain populations, e.g., people of color and those in lower socio-economic situations, receive less care, worse care and have poorer outcomes, I have felt that legalizing physician-assisted suicide could potentially make these people even more vulnerable…that it was just too risky. Even though the data from Oregon, the first state in the U.S. to legalize physician-assisted suicide, has not proven that to be true, my fear has been the “slippery slope,” i.e., if we allow competent people to make this choice, are we then far from deciding the same should be true for those who cannot make decisions for themselves. I still do not believe that concern is unfounded.
The Netherlands, the first country to legalize euthanasia, now allows others to make decisions about ending the lives of those who are unable to be self-determining. Furthermore, years ago, I debated this issue with Derek Humphry, Founder of the Hemlock Society, and when I asked him if he would support euthanizing people who had never been able to express their wishes, he said something like “not now.”
Ironically, in the early 2000s, two nurses in upstate New York who published an online newspaper called The North Country Gazette, decided that I was the leader of the euthanasia movement in the U.S. For several months, they published a “front-page” article about euthanasia and included my name in the headline. I wasn’t aware of it until I began to receive letters from children asking me why I wanted to kill their grandmother and got a couple of calls from national organizations with whom the Center was working asking me to clarify our position on euthanasia. (I should point out that the Center does not now nor has it ever had an official position on euthanasia. Members of the Center’s board and staff are not of one mind about this issue, and I suspect never will be.)
After hand-printing a few letters to children saying that I was not sure why they thought I would ever want to harm their grandmother, we learned the source of the perception. I honestly will never know why I became the target of this series. I do know, however, that it was heart-breaking to me that for nearly two years, if you Googled “euthanasia,” my name was the first thing to pop-up.
Neither my ambivalence (or lack of intellectual clarity) nor my efforts to claim the moral high ground – or even what I thought to be clever communication strategies – had provided me a safe harbor or a pass from this debate.
Now on Tuesday night, Bishop Desmond Tutu, a person who for years I have considered a global moral leader and personal hero, spoke with conviction and confidence about euthanasia as a moral right, an entitlement.
is not about black and white. In my experience, it is clearly about trying to deal with “shades of gray.” But, from a philosophical perspective, respect for human life is not negotiable and that has been a sticking point for me. Tuesday night Bishop Tutu said, “As a Christian, I believe in the sanctity of life and that death is a part of life. I hope that when the time comes I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.” I do too.
December 4, 2016
By many indications, support for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide [PAS] is increasing. On November 8, 2016 Colorado voters passed Proposition 106, “Colorado End of Life Options Act,” by a 65% to 35% margin, making Colorado the sixth state to legalize PAS, joining Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California. The following question appeared in a 2015 Gallup poll: “When a person has a disease that... // Read More »
September 25, 2015
Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune carries an editorial by Steve Chapman entitled “The Case for the ‘right to die.’” Aside from missing the central point of the whole question, Chapman does a creditable job of marshalling arguments and bioethicists to support his support for physician-assisted suicide. However, he does neglect the central point, which, of course, is that doctors do not and should not kill — including not giving... // Read More »
April 16, 2015
<p style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;">We are always pleased to support the activities of young scholars who are interested in bioethics. <a href="http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/440733/Gonzales-v.-Oregon/">This link</a> is a timeline of the Supreme Court case Gonzales vs. Oregon. It was prepared by Ms. Maggie Kirby who attends high school at U-32 in Vermont. It does a terrific job of documenting this important bioethics case and binging awareness to the ongoing debate about physician-assisted suicide. Great work Maggie! </p>
<p style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><strong style="line-height: 19.0400009155273px; color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px;">The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our <a style="text-decoration: underline; color: #000099;" href="http://www.amc.edu/Academic/bioethics/index.cfm">website</a>.</strong><span style="line-height: 19.0400009155273px; color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px;"> </span></p>
February 11, 2015
Here's a debate on Physician Assisted Suicide at higher than the normal level of discourse. Enjoy!
November 5, 2014
<p class="MsoNormal" style="line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">The cover story of the October 27, 2014, issue of <a href="http://www.people.com/article/terminally-ill-brittany-maynard-decision-to-die">PEOPLE Magazine</a> featured Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Oregon woman with terminal brain cancer. </span><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">In the article, Ms. Maynard announced that she would end her life on November 1, 2014, on her own terms, availing herself of the physician-assisted suicide option under the 1997 Oregon<a href="http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Pages/index.aspx">Death With Dignity Act</a> (DWDA). </span><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">As planned, and according to her own schedule and timetable, she <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/11/02/brittany-maynard-/18390069/">died peacefully at home</a> – surrounded by family and friends – on Saturday, November 1. </span><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">She had signaled earlier in the week that she might <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/10/30/brittany-maynard-puts-off-ending-her-life/18166161/">delay taking her own life</a>, but in the end, it occurred as she <a href="http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/oct/30/brittany-maynard-terminally-ill-cancer-patient-ret/">originally planned</a>.</span></p>
<p class="MsoNormal" style="line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;"></span><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">In electing assisted suicide, Ms. Maynard said, “I’m choosing to put myself through less emotional and physical pain.” She continued, “I don’t want to die, but I’m dying. My cancer is going to kill me, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. … When I look at both options I have to die [dying from the cancer versus dying from an overdose], I feel this [a fatal dose] is far more humane.” But rethinking the possibilities after developing a rather extensive plan in orchestrating one’s death with a terminal illness is not that unusual either. Roughly 40% of those who obtain the lethal doses of medicine under Oregon’s DWDA in the end die not from suicide but disease. According to an article in </span><em style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;"><a href="http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/ten-years-of-death-with-dignity">The New Atlantis</a></em><span style="line-height: 22.3999996185303px;">, written to report a 10-year experience under the DWDA, author Courtney Campbell wrote, “In ten years, 541 Oregon residents have received lethal prescriptions to end their lives; of this number, 341 patients actually ingested the drugs.”</span></p>
<p class="MsoNormal" style="line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><strong style="color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;">The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our <a style="text-decoration: underline; color: #000099;" href="http://www.amc.edu/Academic/bioethics/index.cfm">website</a>.</strong></p>
October 13, 2014
The story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old newlywed who has been given the diagnosis of terminal glioblastoma, an especially aggressive brain tumor, has gone viral over the past week. Many know the story already, but it centers on her decision to end her life by taking an oral medication prescribed by her physician, who will be sitting at her bedside with her husband and... // Read More »
March 25, 2014
The Public Health Committee of the Connecticut Legislature has no plans to bring an Oregon-style bill for Aid-in-Dying (aka physician-assisted suicide) to the floor of the legislature for a vote, in spite of 61% public support for the bill. Serious opp...
May 16, 2013
Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
Awaiting the governor’s signature, Vermont is poised to become the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. While Oregon and Washington legalized physician-aid-in-dying through public referendum and Montana through a court decision, Vermont’s is occurring through the legislative process.…
June 1, 2009
So Jack Kevorkian’s dream has come true. The flamboyant inventor of the Thanatron and part-time painter of rotting skulls will get his much longed for appearance on the silver screen.…