2010-04-16 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Death With Dignity Is Under Attack
By Jerry Dincin, Ph. D

Jerry Dincin, Ph.D., is the President of Final Exit Network and a retired psychologist with more than 30 years of clinical experience. The website for Final Exit Network is www.finalexitnetwork. org.

The Montana Supreme Court’s decision to allow physician-assisted suicide has garnered national media attention. It was a huge victory in the fight to let patients facing painful deaths to end their suffering on their own terms — not the government’s.

Montana is one of just three states, along with Oregon and Washington, to allow physician-assisted suicide. Unfortunately, regulators in other parts of the county have ramped up efforts to restrict the right to die with dignity. Groups that simply provide information and counseling have come under the gunsights of zealots, and a witchhunt has ensued.

The abstract debate over assisted suicide becomes less of an intellectual exercise when specifics are considered. The typical patient considering ending her own life is afflicted with an irreversible and incurable condition, like metastatic cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s and other neurological unbearable and unmitigated pain that often looms way into the future.

She’s already tried all available treatments, in vain.

Now what?

This patient is mentally competent. Ignorance would actually be bliss under these circumstances. But this one knows the inevitable: that as her disease progresses, her body will deteriorate. Communication may be reduced to the lowest limits, isolating her further. What kind of future does she envision? Only the dread of another new day of misery, followed by another and another ... with each day’s load of misery multiplying exponentially, ad infinitum.

Though statistically she will wish to die at home, she will likely not. Her last breaths are likely to be taken in a hospital bed, tubes in stomach and arms and down her throat.

A ventilator breathes for her, rendering her incommunicado, terror in her eyes. Her efforts to tear out the offending tubes result in the strapping down of her hands to the bed — the final indignity.

She is a prisoner.

Advances made in medicine over the last 50 years have been astonishing. Thanks to sophisticated new technologies and treatments, diseases once considered death sentences are now manageable conditions.

The progress is often, however, a mixed blessing. Doctors’ once-revered vow to keep patients alive – no matter what – often results not in extending life but extending dying. Perpetuating “life” in a nightmare of powerlessness, constant pain, social isolation, and mental deterioration is tantamount to torture.

Of course, the decision to hasten one’s own death is a very serious one, requiring deep reflection and extensive consultation. Our organization, Final Exit Network, provides patients with the support and information they need to make that decision, enabling them to explore all options before choosing to end their lives. (Many choose to live longer, feeling empowered by that knowledge.) But if they are ready, we’re there to inform them about methods that are swift, certain, painless, inexpensive, and easy to obtain – and to comfort them and their families during their final hours.

Final Exit Network is currently the target of a slur campaign in Georgia. Earlier this month, state authorities indicted several members of my organization, Final Exit Network, for little more than providing information to terminally ill patients wishing to voluntarily end their suffering through suicide. Final Exit Network provides information and emotional support. Period.

Current bills legalizing physician-assisted suicide before state legislatures in Hawaii and New Mexico are just the beginning in what has to become an eventuality: a national acceptance of the “last civil right of the 21st Century.”

In the meantime, those of us currently enjoying the blessings of health and quality of life have an obligation to offer those unfortunate others, in whose beds we may ultimately follow, the gifts of respect, kindness and understanding, and knowledge.

Those are the gifts to which we in Final Exit Network dedicate ourselves.

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