On Nov. 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill young woman, ended her life on her own terms under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act; a law which divides Americans, many of whom have strong opinions about the resulting implications. The Death with Dignity act has always had both those who fully support what it stands for, and those who are strongly opposed, many of whom cite religious beliefs as informing their opinions about whether a person should be allowed to end his or her own life.
As of now, assisted suicide is legal five states. In Oregon the Death With Dignity act came into effect in 1997, in Washington in 2008, and in Vermont as recently as 2013. In Montana and New Mexico the law functions to allow doctors a defense and protection from prosecution rather than the more overt laws of the former three states. The laws in all five states allow adult individuals who are terminally ill and mentally competent to request a medication that will allow them to die peacefully, and on their own terms.
Under the law, a doctor must declare that the patient has six or fewer months to live. After this is determined, another doctor must evaluate the patient, agree with the first doctor’s diagnosis, and also that the patient is competent and able to make this decision. The patient then must wait 15 days to request the medication again in order to provide time within which the patient might change their mind. After that, the medication is issued, and the role that the doctor plays in the situation is completed.
Since the Dignity with Death law came into effect in Oregon in 1997, an estimated 1,200 have requested and received prescriptions to terminate their lives, while only 752 have taken the drug. Some people change their minds, as they say it is the most difficult decision they will ever have to make, and some pass away sooner, without having to take the prescription.
While some people, including terminally ill patients, and many in the medical field think that the Death with Dignity act is an important one that allows patients to die before they endure unbearable pain, there are some who strongly oppose it. Dr. Bill Toffler is one of those people, and leads a group known as Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation. This organization opposes the act of providing terminally ill patients lethal drugs.
Toffler argues that no matter what, no matter how little time is left, all life still has meaning. He wants his terminally ill patients to realize that the time they still have left is of much importance. He admits that if patients are in pain it can be an incredibly scary time, and he wants to be alongside them during this period, but he would not consider allowing them to end their suffering themselves.
While there are some doctors, like Toffler, who would not consider providing life-ending medication no matter how sick the patient, others work toward advocacy for their patients’ right to die. Overall, medical experts are also at odds with each other over the issue. According to Live Science, a 2013 study among medical experts showed that 65 percent opposed doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.
Studies show that Americans are also divided as to whether or not they support physician-assisted suicide. A 2012 poll showed that 55 percent of people supported physician assisted suicide for the terminally ill while 45 percent opposed it. A 2013 Huffington Post poll showed a more even 50/50 split. A May 2014 Gallup pull put the number of Americans who support the right to die at 70 percent.
Many citizens have tried to get the law put into effect in their own states, but have failed. Most recently Massachusetts told its citizens that the Death with Dignity act would not be launched. This was even after residents of Massachusetts rallied in support for the law, and got 20,000 more signatures over what was needed in order for the state to consider it.
The debate over the Death With Dignity act and similar legislation has divided Americans, and the struggle will not vanish anytime soon. Currently, advocacy groups are working on the passage of legislation that will allow the terminally ill to end their lives on their own terms when they see fit.
By: Rebecca Savastio
Compassion and Choices