Death. It’s going to happen to us all someday. Maybe later … maybe sooner. For many people, it’s an inevitability they don’t care to ponder more than in passing. Still others face the specter of their own mortality by hiding behind gallows humor(raises hand.)
We all know it’s coming, but spend most of our lives pretending it’s not.
What’s up with that?
Much of the unease surrounding death in modern western culture centers around the lack of control most people have regarding their own passing.
So many unknown, potentially horrifying variables. Will I suffer? Can my family deal with me slowly wasting away before their eyes? Can I handle watching them go through that?
Because of this looming uncertainty, many people fear the process of dying far more than death itself (raises hand again.) But there’s a growing movement geared to addressing and alleviating these concerns for the terminally ill.
Death With Dignity
The increasing acceptance of physician-assisted suicide(PAS) allows the dying to retain their dignity and bodily sovereignty. To pass from this earth on their own terms, before terminal illness can exact its full fury of (needless) pain and suffering.
Physician-assisted suicide is also defined as doctor-prescribed death, death with dignity, and right to die. Semantics play a key role in clearly defining specific terminology. For example, exchanging the word “physician” with “medical” allows non-physician medical professionals to provide the needed prescription.
Naturally, it’s a loaded topic for healthcare providers. Some medical practitioners believe physician-assisted suicide directly contradicts the Hippocratic oath. But thankfully, more and more providers realize that each patient’s unique end-of-life preferences must be the first priority.
Autonomy and Relief From Suffering
The two most compelling reasons to support the death with dignity movement are patient autonomy and relief from suffering. Adults who’ve always made their own health care choices shouldn’t find themselves denied this right when facing the end of their lives. Not surprisingly, the most compelling arguments in favor of the right to die are courtesy of terminally ill patients themselves.
Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014, joined forces with Compassion and Choices to champion the right to death with dignity.
Before her death on November 1, 2014, Maynard said:
“When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, “I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.” I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully. I can’t imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”
Physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people with a life expectancy of six months or less (the current parameters in 2020) allows people to remain in control of their care. It alleviates some of the anxiety over the process of dying. How can this be a bad thing?
By definition, bodily sovereignty must include the right of each person to control their end-of-life decisions. All terminally ill people deserve the option of PAS to control their destiny, and, more importantly, how it plays out.
The Role of Healthcare Professionals
In countries or states in the U.S. where PAS is already in place, healthcare professionals face numerous challenges. The lack of clearly defined legal and professional guidelines is the first hurdle. Other factors include the absence of collaboration among healthcare professionals and non-existent parameters for nurses, who are in the frontlines of direct patient care.
Psychiatry plays a pivotal role in setting the standards for PAS. A patient’s soundness of mind is center-stage during any professional discussion of death with dignity. It’s understandably common for the terminally ill to experience anguish over their fate. Debate continues whether this inevitable end-of-life challenge should influence a patient’s decision to request PAS, or a physician’s decision to grant or refuse it. Since it’s part of the dying process, no patient should be denied death with dignity simply because they act appropriately given their prognosis. That’s just adding insult to injury.
Respect for the Dying
Clearly, death with dignity is an ever-evolving issue in medicine and society as a whole. The bottom line is that maintaining control of one’s life also means control over one’s death. Denying the terminally-ill bodily autonomy is unnecessarily cruel. Across-the-board respect and regard for those facing imminent death require that the right to die is available to all who desire it.