Option of assisted suicide gives terminally ill patients the right to choose when they die

In Feb. 2013, Pennsylvania hospital nurse Barbara Mancini handed her terminally ill, 93-year-old father, Joseph Yourshaw, a bottle of morphine with the intention of relieving his excruciating pain caused by end-stage diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure. Despite Yourshaw’s specific instructions to hospice caregivers and his order to not resuscitate, his nurse called 911 upon finding him unconscious, and he was given a drug antidote that woke him up when he arrived at the hospital. He died four days later, away from the home environment he had hoped for, and for her part, Mancini was arrested and charged with assisted suicide, a felony carrying a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Assisted suicide is a sensitive and morally controversial issue in the United States. Some argue it is wrong to assist in the killing of another human being who is terminally ill. I, however, find it unethical to prolong unbearable suffering or force an individual handicapped by illness into a dishonorable attempt to end his life after he, as a mentally sound individual, has asked to be killed. Physician-assisted suicide by respectable, painless means should be lawfully permitted at the request of a mentally sound individual, or one who has made the request prior to mental deterioration.

Medical technologies have made vast strides that, no question, have bettered our society in many instances. But while these advancements have worked in helping to cure disease and save lives, they have also succeeded in prolonging inevitable death, which leaves many patients with incurable and unbearable levels of discomfort and pain for long periods of time. These extended periods of hospital stay also have the ability to rob someone of their life savings and may even result in bankruptcy. Plans to leave money for relatives and arrangements to financially help children end up gone in a matter of months. As modern medicine labors to pry people from the edge of death, patients and their families are left financially devastated, tortured by pain and helpless in the face of suffering.

As U.S. law currently stands, suicide is not a crime, although attempted suicide can be a criminal act in a few states. People capable of doing so have the right to choose their fate, and for many seeking to end their life, successful execution is not an issue. But for those hospitalized or bedridden because of a disability or the crippling spread of disease, current law doesn’t leave much choice, leaving patients either praying for death, or desperately attempting a difficult suicide through painful and degrading tactics.

The decision to die is one that is highly personal and should be treated as such. The law, opponents of the “right to death” and physicians should not have a say in whether to end the unbearable suffering of a specific individual, according to Michael H. White, attorney, mediator and former board member of the Death with Dignity National Center. He argued in a speech before the California Assembly Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care that “physician assistance in dying, when permitted, ‘benefits’ only those who choose that option; it does not in any direct or meaningful way affect those who object to the practice.” Public opinion should remain opinion and not affect others’ rights to make decisions for themselves. And when a decision has been made under mentally sound conditions, it should be tolerated by a society that enforces the protection of an individual’s values, beliefs and desires.

After months of emotional strain and a loss of $100,000 in legal fees, Mancini evaded conviction for assisted suicide. But unfortunately for most people, imprisonment is common regardless of the individual’s good intentions. The idea that we, as human beings, have the duty to protect all life no matter the circumstances needs serious review. Today’s hospitals are filled with terminally ill individuals who reside in excruciating pain for extreme periods of time and have nearly lost complete function of their bodies. No longer the dignified, functioning individual they once were, they often look forward to nothing but prolonged and worsening conditions until death. When people beg for their right to die, it is inhumane to ignore their pleas. To be a compassionate society, we, along with the law, must show respect, comply and cooperate.

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