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Alan Chartock: We have a right to die with dignity

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By Tuesday, Mar 12, 2019 Viewpoints 8

I have a close relative who recently passed away after a battle with stomach cancer. My wife and I spent a lot of time with him before he died. The poor guy was in misery. He had come to grips with the fact that his life was at an end. He spent his last days in a humane palliative care unit where they kept him sedated and tried to manage his intense pain. Putting it simply, he was ready to go. He wanted to die with dignity. Dogs and cats who have reached the end stages are allowed to go with dignity but not humans.

Part of this is because our population has separated into tribes. Catholics, for example, believe in the sanctity of life. Suicide is a no-no. I can respect folks who adopt the tenets of a particular religion. But as with all other morality questions such as abortion, I believe that the Constitution as laid out by the founding fathers had it right: “Congress shall make no law …” But most of our state legislatures have made the sensible step of dying with dignity impossible. It is only legal in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Washington, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon and Vermont. At least a few places have gotten this right.

My own mother, a very intelligent lady, would walk around with a bottle of Seconal that she had saved and say, “THIS is my nursing home.” She knew what she wanted and she told us what she wanted, but by the time she would have needed that Seconal, she had pretty severe dementia.

In the past, Massachusetts has put up “right to die” legislation by referendum. The last time, it went down to defeat in a 51 to 49 squeaker. My bet is that it will eventually pass. Oh, there are surely folks who will argue that potential heirs or those children who don’t want to be bothered will “push momma from the train.” It is certainly possible but there are all kinds of failsafe mechanisms that could stop that from happening. You can require doctors to sign off and you can get it in writing from the people who want to go. You can also pass laws making it illegal to take your own life. That’s a laugher. What are they going to do, give you the death penalty? Look, we all know the stars like Marilyn Monroe and Robin Williams, to name just a few, who took their own lives. Suicide is not hard to do. If we pass right-to-die legislation, we have the possibility of helping people by ensuring that they see physicians or mental health professionals.

One day I was speaking with a doctor friend who has cancer that has been held in check. I told him the story of my mom and her Seconal and he said, “I guess I’ve got to start saving mine.”

Hey, I don’t want to die. I don’t know that many people who do. But as the sign held by the advocates says, “MY life, my choice.” That’s exactly right. It seems absurd that we will have to use our collective might to lobby the legislature and the governor to give us the right to die. I have seen polls on the issue where the support for an individual’s right to die with dignity is overwhelming.

We are living at a time when the rights of people to make their own decisions have been irrationally threatened. We have elections in which the one who got the most votes doesn’t win and we have a society in which the ultimate right to make our most important choices is denied us. The NRA is worried that they won’t have the guns to fight an out-of-control government. I’m not holding my breath to see whether they are with the people on this one.


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Jim Balfanz says:

    “We have elections in which the one who got the most votes doesn’t win and we have a society in which the ultimate right to make our most important choices is denied us. The NRA is worried that they won’t have the guns to fight an out-of-control government. I’m not holding my breath to see whether they are with the people on this one.”

    You had me in full agreement, UNTIL you just had to throw in your biased opinion, Alan. You know better than most, that our Presidential election is governed by the Electoral College, and that the Second Amendment very clearly provides for the RIGHT for citizens to be armed.”

    Our family is dealing with the very issue you wrote about, and we know that it should be an individual’s right to choose how their end of life scenario goes.

    And this important issue has nothing to do with the two you so crassly had to add.

    Shame on you!

  2. C. Clark says:

    I agree with the sentiment of this opinion, but would like to make a point about responsibility. Because it is not explicitly stated, I must assume that Mr. Chartock means that death with dignity means death facilitated by a medication prescribed by a Physician or other health care provider. It bears mentioning that a human being must write that prescription and take responsibility for the result of doing so. The personal and professional issues associated with this act are complex, to say the least.

    1. Jim Balfanz says:

      Agree with you on the complexity of this issue.

  3. Elliott Morss says:

    A related problem: My sister was a nurse practitioner. She had a neck pain, had an injection to deal with it and spent a night in the hospital. Some thing happened to her brain and the Mass General doctors said there was nothing to be done to correct the problem. I knew my sister well enough that if he heard what the doctors said, she would want to end her life. However, she had given her proxy to her daughter. And her daughter could not bring herself to order the doctors “to pull the plugs.” So she bounced around in depressing nursing homes for 2 years before she mercifully died of pneumonia.

    And yes, all of us should be able to determine how and when we die.

  4. Carl Bradford says:

    I absolutely agree with you on this one, Alan. I’ll be eighty this year and certainly want the right to choose when my turn comes.

    Carl Bradford

  5. Jim Balfanz says:

    So, I received an email from Alan that simply said “Thanks.” For what, Alan? For pointing out that you did not need to add what you did in your last paragraph? Or for agreeing with C. Clark as to the complexity of the issue? Strange that you would send an email instead of responding here….

  6. Barbara Barak says:

    This is a wonderful article, Alan, and I thank you for it.
    So much of the problem concerns Hospice itself. My 99 year old mom was in terrible intractable pain due to a large wound that couldn’t heal, unable to see very well, mostly deaf, unable to move, and in diapers. She was deemed unfit for hospice because she wasn’t “terminal”, meaning six months to live. She couldn’t have made it clearer to all that she wanted to end her life, being of sound mind, and though some of her doctors were on her side they couldn’t push for a terminal diagnosis, due their own professional fears I suppose. We had to wait until she contracted pneumonia in the hospital until she was eligible, and so died two days after she went home. Her last few months were a nightmare. I’ve heard this kind of story from many other people.
    This was in NYC at a major hospital. Now that I live here I’d like to find a way to address this issue in our state. If anyone has any ideas about who might be contacted I’d love to get involved.

    1. Sue McKeown says:

      These type of laws would not help her. They generally require a “terminal” prognosis, defined of a six months or less to live, just like hospice. I do not support these laws, but the safeguards of a requiring terminal illness with six months less to live, multiple requests by the patient (usually one in writing, witnessed by someone who is not a family member), a waiting period to receive the medication, and possibly a mental health evaluation, are there for good reasons. Assisted suicide cannot be opened up to anyone who desires it.

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