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Facts About Death with Dignity Guide the Conversation

New York Times Cover Aug. 12, 2012
New York Times Cover Aug. 12, 2012

Getting an important cause noticed by a large group of people is a challenge—it's especially difficult when an issue is about something many people don't want to talk about: death. What a difference it makes when one of the major papers in the US publishes an article on the front page of their Sunday edition.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an informative article by Katie Hafner about assisted death and Dignity 2012's effort to ask Massachusetts voters how they feel about Death with Dignity. Hafner's article covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space. She shares the story of a Washington state doctor's decision to request the medication, his physician's and wife's feelings about his decision, and even covers how the main myths regarding the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts have been debunked by years of data and research.

I've been watching the chatter on social media about the article, and the personal perspectives shared in it, such as this one, are mentioned most often:

Dr. Richard Wesley has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable disease that lays waste to muscles while leaving the mind intact. He lives with the knowledge that an untimely death is chasing him down, but takes solace in knowing that he can decide exactly when, where and how he will die.

And anecdotal observations like this one capture many people's attention:

There are no studies of the psychological effect of having a prescription on hand, but experts say many patients who have received one find comfort in knowing they have or can get the drugs. About a third of those who fill the prescription die without using it. "I don't know if I'll use the medication to end my life," Dr. Wesley said. "But I do know that it is my life, it is my death, and it should be my choice."

On the other hand, reactions to the article published on news sites and blogs have focused more on the facts about Death with Dignity Acts and how the original fears spouted by opponents haven't happened. Dr. Bruce Wilson, a former hospice medical director, discussed these facts in an article featured in Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel:

When one looks into physician-assisted suicide (or even euthanasia, which is illegal in the U.S., but legal in seven countries), one finds that the patients who choose these methods are not so much trying to orchestrate how they die, but how they will live in their remaining days.

Protecting high-quality time with their friends and loved ones is the goal. They wish not to lose dignity, or independence, or precious hours, days or weeks by undergoing aggressive treatments that cannot "cure" their diseases. This is what the data shows over the 14 years that this law has been in place in Oregon.

Understandably, the argument has been that this puts us on a slippery slope. What is interesting is that there does not appear to be one.

In no state where physician-assisted suicide is legal, or any country where euthanasia is practiced, has there ever been a vulnerable person who had this type of a decision made for them. In fact, the safeguards against this are many, and layered.

Nikki Tucker from Medical Daily described the safeguards in the law and how they've made sure everyone involved in the process is protected:

Both Washington and Oregon use meticulous and strict guidelines to determine who will be considered to receive the drugs. Two physicians are required to confirm that a patient has a maximum of six months left to live. The requests must be made twice, with each request made 15 days apart, before the prescriptions are given. The drugs also must be self-administered.

For an editorial writer in Astoria, Oregon the New York Times article brought back memories of Oregon's debates in 1994 when the voters approved the state's law—the first in the nation.

When Oregonians debated this proposal 18 years ago, opponents raised the specter of terminally ill people moving to Oregon in large numbers to kill themselves. There was also fear that indigent people would be forced to use the law. Hafner quotes researchers at Oregon Health and Sciences University who note that neither of those outcomes have occurred.

Roman Catholic bishops injected religion into Oregon's debate, but the topic on voters' minds was pain and self determination at the end of life. That same dichotomy is playing out in Massachusetts. Our debate and our law caused physicians to pay more attention to palliative care. Oregon's example is being studied elsewhere. That's a good thing.

A good thing indeed.

Posted on August 15, 2012 in Massachusetts, New England, Personal Stories


Posted by Nora Miller (not verified) on August 15, 2012 at 05:30 p.m.

I too appreciate the NYT article very much, and was glad to see such a positive story make it into such a widely read paper. I sent a letter to the editors with my thanks and one criticism: they used the inaccurate and prejudicial term "assisted suicide" in the headline. As we have read on this blog and elsewhere, the use of laws like Oregon's Death with Dignity act has nothing whatsoever to do with suicide. People who commit suicide are typically healthy but depressed and think dying might fix their problems. If they don't kill themselves, they will go on living. People who use Oregon's law are going to die no matter what they might want, despite the fact that what they very much want would be to keep living. The law simply gives them a chance to manage the when and the how of an inevitable death.

I haven't heard from them yet so we probably won't see it in print.

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