The Right-to-Die Debate
By Jordan Magaziner
We’re living longer and longer, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’d choose to live through a painful terminal illnesses. Do we have the right to choose? Should we?
Ten years ago, after Jerry Dincin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he went through a course of radiation therapy that left him cancer-free. But a few years later, he had a recurrence of prostate cancer and then, just six months ago, a routine test revealed that the disease had spread to his bones. His condition has forced him to think about death, a subject most of us try to avoid, especially while we’re still in good health.
Having received a poor prognosis and looking for support as he confronted the process of dying, Dincin, a retired psychologist, decided to join the Final Exit Network, an organization dedicated to the principle that the ultimate human right for the terminally ill is the right to choose the time and method of their death. “My relationship with the Final Exit Network is a tremendous comfort and relief to me,” explains Dincin, who’s now the president of the organization, “because I know that when my medical condition becomes too uncomfortable, I can decide that I don’t have to live with it. I’m not afraid of being dead; I’m afraid of the dying process, and the pain and suffering that goes with it.”
At a time when medical technology has become increasingly adept at keeping people alive, people like Jerry Dincin are voicing a feeling within a growing part of the population that the goal may not always be keeping a terminally ill person alive at all costs. As he puts it, “If you’re on a ventilator, you can live for a long time. But whether you want to should be put into that equation.”
Fighting for the Right to Die
Since the time of Hippocrates in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the principle of helping patients stay alive has been the foundation of medical practice. Generally speaking, the idea that all patients should have the right to choose death, and that any physician should be legally allowed to help them carry out their wishes, runs counter to the ethical code of the entire medical establishment. Similarly, the notion of choosing the time and method of one’s death has been rejected by most religious traditions throughout the centuries, in the belief that only a higher power should determine the time and means of death. Most faiths consider suicide a sin.
In the United States, the organized movement promoting the right to die can be traced back to the first decade of the 20th century, when a bill to legalize euthanasia was proposed—and defeated—in Ohio. About 20 years later, the Euthanasia Society of America was founded to encourage public acceptance of the concept of providing a painless death to those with incurable diseases who wished one. In 1980, Derek Humphry created the Hemlock Society to educate the public about right-to-die issues and generate support for the idea that, under certain circumstances, it might be more humane to help people at the end of life bring about their own death peacefully and quickly. The Hemlock Society drafted a model law on euthanasia and assisted suicide that’s become the basis for the legislative efforts that have followed, and the society continues to be active in promoting public support for assisted suicide today, under the name Compassion & Choices.
Beginning in the 1980s, the debate about euthanasia became increasingly public, in large part because of the activities of controversial right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian, a physician who helped at least 130 patients die. Kevorkian, who himself just died in June, eventually went to prison for the second-degree murder of Thomas Youk, a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease who, physically unable to carry out his own suicide, had asked that the doctor administer the lethal injection. In all his other cases, Kevorkian had merely been present when his patients had administered their own injections—which had precluded murder convictions. He was paroled after eight years on the condition that he never again provide suicide advice or assistance to anyone.
With his attraction to the limelight, outspokenness, and flare for the dramatic, Kevorkian had a mixed reputation among right-to-die activists. In a 2007 article, Derek Humphry referred to him as a “lone ranger,” who increased public polarization about right-to-die issues. “Political activists in the right-to-die movement in the 1990s dreaded the thought that Kevorkian might show up during their campaigns because he was such a negative figure,” Humphry noted. However, later in the article, he thanked Kevorkian for the “huge public interest he aroused” and his indirect role in bringing about the first legislative breakthrough for the right-to-die movement: the passage of Oregon’s 1997 Death with Dignity Act.