On the right to die

Brittany Maynard, 29, chose to end her life on November 1, 2014. In preparation for this event, she and her husband moved to Oregon, one of a few states in the United States that allows people to kill themselves humanely with help from a physician in the form of a prescribed life-ending dose of drugs the patient must swallow herself.

While many championed Brittany’s right to die, others were repulsed. According to an Associated Press story published by NewsOK, Janet Morena of Priests for Life said, “Brittany’s death was not a victory for a political cause. It was a tragedy, hastened by despair and aided by the culture of death invading our country.”

The issue of the right to die is controversial. And it is not surprising that those opposed to it do so on grounds not related to the issue of rights at all.

For the religious, the claim is that their god chooses when a person dies. That claim is, of course, ridiculous. If that were true, they should argue against the entire medical and prescription drug industries. We choose all the time to attempt to prolong our lives. To the religious, it’s not really about a god determining our fates. It’s about death, something they are decidedly against, despite the promises of an afterlife they are all too ready to offer those who might choose their church.

Others, like the advocates at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, try a different argument. Marilyn Golden, with the DREDF fears that assisted suicide will increase abuse of the elderly. Golden told USNews’ Shannon Firth in March that assisted suicide “…does not promote patient choice. It invites coercion.” This nonsensical notion arises from the fact that while a witness is required for the request of the drug, no witness is required for the ingestion of it. Thus, some vile relative may actually force an elderly person to kill himself.

Another argument against the right to die with dignity comes from members of the medical profession who say that doctors simply should not kill people.

None of these arguments is enough to invalidate our right to die with dignity.

The problem with the religious is that they are too eager to make the rules based on their religious codes applicable to all of society. When they deem something wrong, it’s not enough for them to make a choice, they must make yours as well.

As with abortion…if you think it’s wrong, don’t have one. Drugs…if you don’t want to do drugs, don’t. Gay marriage…don’t agree with it? Don’t get gay married. Assisted suicide? If you think life is sacred and only your god can say when you should die, don’t end your life. But stop trying to tell the rest of us we have to live by your choices.

Not everyone believes in a god. And more important, not everyone who believes in a god, believes that god chooses when you die. And perhaps more logical, if you believe that only a god can choose when a person dies — if it’s that important to him or her — then you could take all the drugs you wanted and if your god says it’s not your time, you won’t die. If, on the other hand, the problem isn’t that only your god can make that choice, but that only your god should be allowed to make it, the person who kills himself will, we must suppose, be punished by said god. Frankly, that’s none of your business, is it? It’s not your job to police society and make it illegal for people to do things that will get them in trouble with your god.

The possibility that someone might force an elderly or terminally ill person to end her life is not enough to deny someone else the right to die peacefully. You should not be able to deny me the right to a drug on the basis that someone else may abuse it. I understand the concern for our elderly and disabled, but that fear is simply not enough to deny the rights of others.

As to doctors, maybe we should encourage the medical profession away from the “save lives at all cost” paradigm to one that sees human life as it is: temporary. We all die. No one survives this. And the idea that every person must persevere, must struggle, often unwillingly and with much suffering, until the body gives up is vulgar.

We hold life too dear. We are too eager to look away from suffering, or when we see it, to champion it, encourage a person to forge on despite it. We fear death and loss so deeply that we would rather someone live in pain than leave us. Yes, of course life is dear, especially for the rationalist. After all, we accept that this is the only one we’ve got. However, there are two reasons we must demand the right to purchase drugs that will end our lives. First, life isn’t wonderful, joyful, and precious to everyone. Too many suffer with pain and disease or mental illness. To insist that those of us who are suffering continue on, to keep trying with medications and treatments, when they don’t want to fight any longer is cruel. And second, individual rights must be paramount. It’s my body and my life and I must have the right to do with it what I will. I should not have to beg for, apply for, or prove I understand the consequences to someone else’s satisfaction in order to obtain medication to end my life.

The problem with current right-to-die laws is that they seek to assuage the fears of those who cling desperately to life as sacred, by making the right available only to the physically suffering terminally ill. Society, it seems, needs to be assured that you are going to die soon and in a lot of pain before they’ll let you do so on your own terms.

Have you seen the film Soylent Green? Spoiler Alert. In the film, Charleton Heston’s friend, Edward G. Robinson, chooses to end his life. Ending a life in the film is a matter-of-fact business. The man’s preferences are noted — favorite colors, scenes, music — he is reclined, injected, and then his life ends to a peaceful, beautiful symphony of sights and sounds. It’s unfortunate that the only way novelist Harry Harrison could envision such a pleasant way to end one’s life was to put it against the backdrop of an overpopulated, polluted world and attach the end-of-life facility to a food processing plant.

Clearly, humans are uncomfortable with death.

In The Netherlands, doctor assisted suicide for depressed patients has many opponents of the right to die queasy. According to The Daily Beast in February, “Under the Dutch law, the patient must ask repeatedly to die, a second doctor has to agree in writing that euthanasia is justified, and the post-mortem panel made up of a doctor, a jurist and an ethical expert have to confirm that the legal requirements were met.”

These are the hoops a person must jump through to be allowed to die with dignity in The Netherlands. And it was understood, when this law was written, that the person in question was suffering unbearable pain or facing imminent death. But in 2012 the Life-Ending Clinic opened and accepted patients whose doctors refused to help them end their lives. They’ve helped chronically depressed people die. And the world doesn’t like it.

When Robin Williams ended his life there were actually some people on social media calling him a coward. It was as if someone else’s choice to end his suffering was a personal affront to them— as if our lives are not our own but we are a collective, like a colony of ants, and to end my life would somehow diminish yours. The insistence that others must forge on, despite pain, be it physical or emotional, is unseemly.

We do not owe anyone our lives. We do not owe the human race an excuse for not wanting to continue. If we are to be truly free, we must have autonomy, we must have control of our own personhood, we must have the right to choose not to exist. Readily available and easy to acquire means to our own ends are a natural extension of that right.