“I will take my life today around noon. It is time. Dementia is taking its toll and I have nearly lost myself.”
Gillian Bennett chose the right to die in the backyard of her home on Bowen Island. On August 18th, 2014, wrapped in the arms of her husband of 60 years, she said goodbye with a tumbler of whiskey and a lethal dose of barbiturates. At age 85, Bennett had been living with dementia for over three years. During her lucid moments, she would ruminate on the impact of her suffering on family, and the burden she would become on the healthcare system at large. Bennett wanted to live and die with dignity; she viewed spending her remaining days in a nursing home as anything but. The retired psychotherapist voiced her wish to end her life on her own terms before losing “an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who [she is].” Her family and friends supported her decision.
Such cases as the one highlighted above have long ignited the debate about how much personal choice we should have about when and how we leave this world. It is a highly emotive subject with arguments on a moral, legal and philosophical level. The bottom line is…how many of us feel ok with being forced to live suffering from an incurable disease or the the loss of what essentially makes us human, our active mind?. On the other hand, could vulnerable people feel coerced into ending their lives by friends and family who see it as an option to end pain and suffering? Even with the fact that a medical doctor is mostly involved in the process either by supplying or administering the lethal dose of drugs does not rule mistakes or coercion.
Although technology and advanced drugs provide physicians with “heroic” means of prolonging life, more people are questioning whether doing so is the right action, and, more importantly, many are asking why they must suffer at all with painful terminal diseases like Huntington’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, or the end‐stages of AIDS. Those in favor of physician‐assisted suicide argue that patients remain in control, administer the lethal drugs themselves, and die by choice with limited pain and suffering. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has stood at the center of the debate for providing lethal drugs to terminally ill or profoundly suffering patients who want to die. Despite arrests and jail sentences, Kevorkian continues to assist patients in their deaths.
There will always be doctors willing to participate in this process, some anonymously but the moral side of the argument brings a different aspect. One of the very things that make us human is an indestructible spirit to overcome adversity, to fight on until better times come. By legalizing assisted suicide, are we taking this away too easily? Indeed, what happens when the diagnosis is wrong? Supporters of legislation legalizing assisted suicide claim that all persons have a moral right to choose freely what they will do with their lives as long as they inflict no harm on others. This right of free choice includes the right to end one’s life when we choose. For most people, the right to end one’s life is a right they can easily exercise. But there are many who want to die, but whose disease, handicap, or condition renders them unable to end their lives in a dignified manner. When such people ask for assistance in exercising their right to die, their wishes should be respected. Those who oppose any measures permitting assisted suicide argue that society has a moral duty to protect and to preserve all life. To allow people to assist others in destroying their lives violates a fundamental duty we have to respect human life. A society committed to preserving and protecting life should not commission people to destroy it. Finally, it is argued that sanctioning assisted suicide would violate the rights of others. Doctors and nurses might find themselves “pressured” to cooperate in a patient’s suicide. In order to satisfy the desires of a patient wanting to die, it’s unjust to demand that others go against their own deeply held convictions.
It all comes down to personal choice but the arguments presented above prove that there is still a lot of clarity needed before assisted suicide becomes a legal concept. Even then, it would need to be accepted on moral and religious grounds too.