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Dr. Oz, Criminal Minds, and Death with Dignity

Dr. Oz, Criminal Minds, and Death with Dignity

Montel Williams on The Dr. Oz Show

I believe that if someone is terminally ill and at a point which they feel they can no longer continue to enjoy any quality of life—they've lost their dignity—their doctor should be able to legally prescribe medication to help them end their lives with that dignity.

What a strong statement of support for Death with Dignity laws! Working at the Death with Dignity National Center, it's not unusual for me to come across statements like this from supporters on our Facebook wall, through Twitter, over the phone, or via email. But I noticed this statement through an unexpected avenue. This was how Dr. Mehmet Oz (of Oprah fame) decided to finish his daytime TV program, The Dr. Oz Show, on November 1. It was even covered in a story in the New York Post.

Dr. Oz's show joins a growing movement of openness to take on death and assisted death in popular culture—and not just in an inflammatory or factually-incorrect fashion as some shows in the past have done. Right on the heels of Dr. Oz's show, the prime-time crime drama Criminal Minds concluded their subplot of the main character, Rossi, whose ex-wife asked for his help to hasten her death.

What I found interesting about the Criminal Minds episode was how little time they spent on assisted death in the actual episode and how frequently this five-minute segment was mentioned on TV blogs and message boards after it aired. By presenting the subject behind the rest of the story and not over dramatizing the scene, the show left the audience to think about and discuss end-of-life options and what they may or may not want for their own deaths.

That is the heart of Death with Dignity legislation—it's one end-of-life option to talk about. The appropriate end-of-life care for each person is an individual experience, and one which should be discussed openly. As Montel Williams put it on The Dr. Oz Show, "Dignity is an individual thought. It's not a collection."

Though The Dr. Oz Show episode went through many different debates—end-of-life care, quality of life, quality of death—an elegant way to approach the topic of physician-assisted death emerged. This was best summarized by audience member Gustin Reichbach, a New York State Supreme Court Justice. Reichbach, who's living with pancreatic cancer, clearly explains government's role:

I think there's a confusion of two different concepts: one of rationality and one of morality. Now I think the state has a role to play in terms of rationality to make sure that someone making this decision is competent, to make sure that the decision is voluntary, to make sure that it is informed and in understanding of their own prognosis and what's available to them. I think the state has that right. The state does not have the right to tell me that my prolonged suffering is a moral duty.

Perhaps Dr. Oz came into the program with his mind already made up with regards to physician-assisted death or maybe hearing the clear arguments in favor from Montel Williams and several audience participants helped shape his opinion. Either way, his message is clear, and one with which the majority of Americans agree: when facing a terminal illness, it should be up to each individual to decide when or whether to hasten his or her suffering, and a doctor who would like to help their patient by writing a prescription should be able to do so.

Posted on November 9, 2011 in The Arts


  • Posted by Linda Rupp, RN, BSHCM on Wednesday, November 16 at 12:34 a.m.

    Extremely interesting.Much of my nursing has been dedicated to end of life care.Just as we are able to kill our imperfect unborn children,what will prevent eliminating anyone whose life seems inconsequental, that person's choice of not, especially if the state is involved? Some of my patients had strong desires to end life, only to be glad for a new day, another chance to make a memory for others. Surely there is enough information available that if I choose to end my life, I can. Do I need someone's permission? I truly believe that God alone holds this most amazing and mysterious gift of life. And death. I must seem quarrelsome, but I want to understand. These are treaturous, deep waters.

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Wednesday, November 16 at 01:53 p.m.

    Thank you for asking, Linda. I think this is where the Dr. Oz show could have been done much better. Their meandering and at times unfocused debate likely left many confused about Death with Dignity Acts.

    A critical aspect of Death with Dignity Acts is the decision to hasten death is completely up to the patient. The terminally ill individual must initiate the conversation with his or her physician and make the request three times (one of those in writing with witnesses). To ensure the patient knows all of their end-of-life care options, the attending physician is required to discuss all feasible options including hospice and palliative care. In addition, a second doctor must verify the terminal diagnosis and the patient's mental competency to make his or her own medical care decisions.

    Once the terminally ill person completes the request process, his or her physician writes a prescription for medication which the patient will decide when or whether to self-administer. It's worth noting a third of the people who receive the medication never take it. Like some of your patients, people who request medication under the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts are eager to live life to the fullest, and the medication a last resort if their suffering gets to be too great.

    Please don't hesitate to write again if you have more of your questions.


  • Posted by Pam Burgess on Sunday, December 04 at 10:55 a.m.

    I am so pleased to see and hear the topic of death being discussed in mainstream America. I have been an oncology nurse for the past 27 years. In those years I have observed people struggle with the death experience woefully unprepared which increased the suffering for all involved. It does not have to be this way. Death can be a beautiful & enriching experience. I hope this conversation can continue so that more people can have the choice to die with dignity.

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You are the key to ensuring well-crafted Death with Dignity laws for all Americans. With your financial and volunteer help, the Death with Dignity National Center, a 501(c)(3), non-partisan, nonprofit organization, has been the leading advocate in the Death with Dignity movement. Individual contributions helped us pass new Death with Dignity laws in Washington and Vermont, defend the Oregon law, and provide education and outreach programs for the vitality of the Death with Dignity movement.

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