The right to ‘die with dignity’: Where has empathy gone? Why is an individual’s free will a matter of legal debate?

Brittany Maynard was a 29 year-old woman who decided, with support from her family, to end her life legally in Oregon. She chose to die at the time she did, rather than continue to suffer through stage 4 glioblastoma (a form of brain cancer), which is a terminal illness with excruciating side effects that would have continued to worsen and progress until her imminent death.

Only 3 states in the U.S. (Oregon, Montana, and Washington) have legislation in place to legalize assisted suicide. In many states, like Massachusetts, family and friends who are present during the time a terminally ill individual ends his/her own suffering can actually be charged as an accessory to murder! In fact, 39 states–including Ohio–have laws that specifically prohibit assisted suicide, criminalizing an act of humanity that many people, like Brittany Maynard, would prefer for themselves over the alternative.

Personally, I find this baffling. Where has our empathy gone? How many late-night discussions with friends have we all experienced in which we put ourselves into hypothetical situations like the real one faced by Brittany Maynard, and consider what we would want for ourselves given the circumstances? We ask: ‘What would I do?’…’What would any of us do if our doctors told us we were going to die?’…’What would we decide for ourselves if we knew the end of our time was near, and that pain and suffering would overwhelm us until our inevitable end?’ What we don’t ask ourselves is, ‘how would I avoid revealing my intention to end my life to my loved ones, in order to prevent them from being prosecuted for my murder after I pass?’.

It strikes me odd that those who oppose mercy-killing at an individual’s self-direction claim to do so out of a “respect for life”. Take, for instance, this excerpt from an Ohio website regarding their position against assisted-suicide:

“We approve of the accepted medical practice of administering pain-relieving drugs in whatever dosage necessary to alleviate the suffering of the terminally ill, as long as there is no intent to bring about or hasten the patient’s death. We care about human life and about people and families facing difficult medical decisions. We promote positive steps of advocacy to protect all human life, no matter what stage on the continuum of life.”

I wonder, in the 39 states where anti-assisted-suicide legislation exists to support this position, who is there to protect individuals from policies that take the one most important decision–whether or not they wish to endure through their own mental, emotional, and physical deterioration–out of their hands, and under the rule of law? Where is the compassion in that? When is it alright for “protect all human life” to mean ‘force people to live through unbearable pain,’ or else leave loved ones facing potential murder charges?

Yet, many of these same people who would deny “death with dignity” legislation find no objection to an act of compassion on behalf of a dying or suffering pet. Yes, when our dogs and cats get sick and their lives become hopeless, our veterinarians–medical professionals–do in fact recommend that we help them to ‘die with dignity’, rather than keep them suffering through in misery until their inevitable end is met by a crushed spirit. When veterinarians recommend we put our sick and suffering pets to sleep, we often listen to them–because we see the rationale behind their suggestion, and we agree. So, why do we not extend this most humane courtesy to all of God’s creatures, and let humans decide for themselves when it is their time to go?