On Oct. 5, 2015, California became the fifth state to pass the law to legalize assisted suicide. This has been in the news recently when 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who had terminal brain cancer, chose to go to Oregon and die. Oregon is one of the states that has legal physician assisted suicide. The question of assisted suicide is becoming more relevant as the population in the United States ages.
Connecticut has fallen behind with getting this law passed in the legislature. In 2014, a bill called “An act concerning passionate aid in dying for the terminally ill,” was presented in Connecticut but failed to pass. The Attorney General of Connecticut, George Jepsen, states that he considers it inhumane for people to continue living with excruciating pain. In citing his support for the proposed bill, he stated his belief that people need to have control over their own bodies.
Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin Lembo also stated his support for this bill by giving a personal reason, saying he would like to have this choice if he was terminally ill.
This issue is concerning to me because, as a resident of Connecticut, I believe that a person has the right to die in the manner he or she chooses.
Therefore, I support the legalization of assisted suicide under specific circumstances. I believe that an individual’s right to autonomy and self-determination is most important when he or she is faced with pending demise, especially from chronic or terminal illness.
In April of 2015, the assisted suicide bill was again brought to the legislature and again failed to pass. One of the biggest opponents was the Family Institute of Connecticut, a very strong pro-life group.
The group contends that assisted suicide does not help the elderly, disabled or terminally ill. They are a strong supporter of palliative and hospice care. Historically, the man who brought this ethical medical issue to the front burner was Dr. Jack Kevorkian who assisted many terminally ill patients to die in Michigan. He was later convicted for this and did end up losing his medical license to practice.
Many opinions exist related to assisted suicide and this continues to be controversial whenever it is brought to the court of public opinion. Many views exist varying from moral, religious and cultural perspectives related to dying.
Many cultural minorities have a mistrust of the health care system brought on by years of institutional racism and poor healthcare outcomes in comparison to whites. This has left many very distrustful of the process of having laws that dictate that someone — namely a physician — can assist one to die.
Social workers sometimes caution about the ethics of assisted suicide. In a 1994 article, Jay Callahan wrote that when a person is suicidal, unrelated to terminal illness, then his or her right to self-determination may be overridden by the professional judgement of a social worker.
Many arguments against assisted suicide are related to the sacredness of life. Robert Griffith states “the sanctity of life continues to be a principle protected by law.” This cautions against impulsive decisions but calls for a thoughtful process in the decision to legalize assisted suicide.
Many supporters of assisted suicide list dying with dignity and having the choice in how they die as reasons for their beliefs.
In research done by Tomlinson, Spector, Nurock, & Stott (2015), with caretakers of patients with dementia, the new information gleaned was that not only patients with dementia, but also caretakers, are supporters of assisted suicide.
This supports the idea that not only the terminally ill but also others suffering from other progressive diseases will benefit from a change in law. The Supreme Court in 1997 ruled that liberty did not include the right to assistance in dying and that the decisions to legalize assisted suicide should be left up to individual states.
Since that time, many states have brought to their legislature the issue of assisted suicide. The first two states to legalize assisted death in the United States were Oregon and Washington. In 2009, Montana Supreme Court ruled that state law protected physicians from being prosecuted if they aided in the death of the terminally ill. Although, in this case, the court did not find physician assisted death as a constitutionally guaranteed right. This opened the door to many medical personnel, including myself, thinking about this as an option for end of life care.
The legalization of assisted suicide is becoming a national and global issue. More states are discussing the issue and bringing bills regarding it to their legislature. It is evident that the discussion will continue as people are aging and the right to die becomes synonymous with dignity and self-determination.
In Connecticut, the bill to pass assisted suicide has been defeated three times so far, is expected to resurface again. The ultimate question still remains: Do citizens have the right to die in what manner they choose, and if so who decides?
Raxine Campbell lives in Bloomfield