Death with Dignity


Today, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the assisted suicide law that has been in place in my home state for the last several years. With a 6-3 ruling, the outcome would have been the same even if Alito were already on the bench. This gives me some small glimmer of hope, though Anthony Kennedy is not the type of justice I want to be reliant on. And the glimmer may be misleading anyway, with the conflation of state jurisdiction issues and the substantive issues of the Death with Dignity amendment itself.

This has made me think about the whole subject of assisted suicide. I remember when this was on the ballot in Oregon, and what a fight it was. It's one of those situations where even though I do have a strong opinion, I can understand where the other side is coming from as well. In fact, this is an issue that I had trouble making up my mind about at one point. While I absolutely believe in a person's right to die with dignity, in the manner than he or she chooses, I also questioned the necessity of a doctor's involvement. Then I read an article by Peter Reagan, an Oregon doctor who also happens to be the father of a doctor I worked with during my stint in medical education. The article, "Helen," appears in the April 1999 issue of Lancet, and was, to my knowledge, the first widely published account of a doctor assisting a patient in ending her life. It's not online, as far as I know, but it's worth looking up if you have access to Lancet. It was and remains one of the most moving articles on any topic I've ever read, and I know I am a more informed person for having read it.

By the time I read the Lancet article, though, my opinions were already starting to form. See, it's not an intellectual issue to me anymore. I have an uncle, my father's youngest brother, who is fighting Parkinson's. He's been fighting it for nearly 10 years, since before his 40th birthday. Having been diagnosed so young, and given the progression of the disease so far, his prognosis is not good. With a disease like Parkinson's, though, as with so many others, death is, after some time, the best thing that happens to you. Death is a blessing. Before you are set free, though, your body and then your mind are stolen from you. If that can be kept from happening, to my uncle or to anyone else, I have to support it.

A lot of people think this is a barbaric topic. They think it's something better left without discussion, for doctors and family members to, at great personal risk, "take care of" themselves, without the law entering into it. That's not fair to anyone, and it's especially not fair to the patients themselves, who may not even have anyone to ask for help. As has long been pointed out, we honor our pets with dignified deaths, legally and humanely and in the quickest and most painless ways we know. It is completely unreasonable to think that our friends and family members do not deserve that same dignity. And as uncomfortable as it is to discuss, discuss it we must in order to make that a reality.

So let's hear it for the Supreme Court for not fucking things up for once. And especially let's hear it for the doctors and family members at home, people like Peter Reagan, who have been keeping this issue alive and doing what is best by their patients for years. God bless them.

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April 2012

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