Death with dignity: The controversy over assisted suicide

This map of the United States shows the legality of physician-assisted suicide in each state. In red states, it is illegal. Yellow indicates pending legislation. Blue means assisted suicide was decriminalized.

The doctor enters the room with solemn news. She has only weeks left. The patient, worn down by months of unbearable pain and agony, cannot stand to live much longer. She only has a single wish: to end the pain and die peacefully. At this point, a  few weeks feels like years. There is no reason why the doctor, who has cared for the patient for months and can empathize with the feelings of the patient, can’t help the patient take the final step, right?

Maryland legislators seem to think otherwise. For several consecutive years, bills have been proposed that would legalize assisted-suicide. However, due to a lack of widespread support, legislators have never even held a vote on any of the proposed bills. In 2016, the bill failed to pass committee in the Maryland Senate with senators Jamie Raskin and Lisa Gladden in support, while the other five expressed opposition.

The bill would have allowed doctors to administer lethal injections to patients with less than six months to live. While Maryland legislators have not provided clear reasons for why they oppose assisted suicide legislation, representatives from other states have voiced specific concerns.

“I worry that assisted suicide will create a marketplace for death”, said Jason Chaffetz, head of a Utah representative that headed the Oversight Committee in the House of Representatives. While Chaffetz is broad in his concern, he makes a valid point. Issues arise from potentially allowing doctors to end the lives of terminally ill patients. How much say should family have in deciding whether a patient can end her own life? How can doctors determine if the patient is mentally fit?

Potential risks are a nightmare when discussing assisted suicide. What if doctors incorrectly diagnose a patient as terminally ill? Even if patients feel they should have control over their own fate, family members cannot simply stand by and watch them make life-or-death choices alone. Even more so if they feel that their loved one is not in the proper state of mind to be making such a decision.

While morality is certainly the main concept associated with assisted suicide, legislators have also raised issues of religion. For some, breaking religious values to help another person die, even if peacefully, is too much to bear. It can also be difficult for some doctors to take the life of a terminally ill patientin the arguments surrounding assisted suicide, the doctor’s personal opinions on the ethicality of such a procedure are often forgotten.

It is therefore no surprise that only six states have legalized assisted suicide along with Washington D.C. The issue is divided along party lines, with no Republican states in support of such a bill. Even the vast majority of democratic states have not approved an assisted suicide bill.

If the ‘Death with Dignity’ movement is to make progress, then its best chance is to go through more liberal states. This however also raises the issue of whether we want assisted suicide to remain an issue divided along party lines rather than personal values.

Rather than try to repeatedly bring up an unaltered bill year after year, there should be a more defined set of rules regarding how physician-assisted suicide should be legally conducted. While this is easier said than done, the time spent on working on such a bill would be worth it if it means bringing about a more resolute proposal.

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