By Gina Liggett
A Real-Life Story of Dying With Dignity by Physician-Assisted Suicide
The PBS show, “Frontline,” documented the story of Craig Ewert, a 59-year old American with Lou Gehrig’s disease who chose to die by assisted suicide in Zurich, Switzerland in September, 2006.
Assisted suicide is legal in the U.S. for residents of Washington, Oregon and Montana; and for citizens of Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg (where euthanasia is also legal). In physician-assisted suicide, the physician writes the prescription for the lethal medication, but the patient administers it. In euthanasia, someone else administers the lethal medication with the patient’s consent. But it is only in Switzerland that non-citizens can seek physician-assisted suicide.
Mr. Ewert first considered suicide only five months after his diagnosis, when he “had deteriorated enough.” As his wife was doing his morning shave, a task he could no longer perform himself, he said “You can only watch so much of yourself drain away before you say this is an empty shell. Once I become completely paralyzed, I will take in some nutrients through a tube in my stomach and I will have to excrete and be cleaned and washed. And it’s painful.”
The Ewerts, who had settled in England, sought help through a Swiss organization called Dignitas, which caters only to foreigners seeking assisted suicide. In compliance with Swiss Law, Mr. Ewert himself activated a timer on his breathing-assistance device (using his teeth) to cause it to stop working so it wouldn’t continue to ventilate him after his own respirations ceased. Given his love of music, Mr. Ewert wanted a recording of the First Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to play during his final journey. He and his wife kissed and said goodbye to each other, then he drank a lethal-strength prescription sedative. Within minutes, he peacefully fell asleep. The ventilator turned off. And he never reawakened.
Assisted Suicide is Legal But Not a Right
Unfortunate for advocates for the right to die, bills being considered by the Swiss legislature this year may place more legal restrictions on right-to-die organizations in Switzerland.
The concern over Switzerland’s “Suicide Tourism” has come about recently because of controversies concerning Dignitas and such cases like the assisted suicides of a rugby player that had become paralyzed and a couple in which one spouse was relatively healthy.
In Washington and Oregon, assisted suicide is legal because the majority of voters approved it, and court challenges upheld the law.
In Montana, the newest state to permit physician-assisted suicide, the state supreme court ruled on Dec. 31, 2009 that physicians who write lethal prescriptions for mentally competent, terminally-ill patients, would be shielded from homicide liability. The court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the issue.
Because assisted suicide is not recognized as an absolute right, not everyone who wants to end his or her life has been able to. As an example, in Switzerland, a couple who wanted to die together was declined services because the husband, who had serious heart disease, was not considered sick enough and his wife was healthy. Months later, the wife unexpectedly died of cancer, and the husband continues to survive without her. They were unable to fulfill their wish to die together as they had lived---inseparable from the start.
The Religious Right Continues to Oppose Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia
Not surprisingly, the Religious Right remains opposed on Christian religious grounds to physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. This was reiterated at the Religious Right’s September, 2009 summit called the “Manhattan Declaration” where Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christian leaders drew the line in the sand on their well-known positions on social issues.
What About the Religious Left?
While the Religious Right opposes physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia for biblical reasons, the religious left seems to oppose it on “social” grounds.
In a 2007 Pew Forum interview, self-called “Progressive” theologian Robert P. Jones argues that assisted suicide/euthanasia could end up being performed in a biased fashion on the poor, disabled, or those without health insurance. That is, they could be pressured into choosing to prematurely end their lives for financial or social reasons. He said, “in our current health care context we can't justly implement it in a way that doesn't lead to increased risk to the disadvantaged and the vulnerable in society.”
But when asked by the interviewer, “Is there any evidence in Oregon that the sorts of problems that you've raised have actually occurred?”, Jones answers,
“On their face, the official reports out of Oregon so far don't seem to indicate that these sorts of problems have occurred.”
Ezekiel Emmanuel, a physician-ethicist and close advisor to the Obama Administration on health care policy, wrote in 1997 about his opposition to the right to die. He argues, first, patients do not need physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia because, “Patients who are being kept alive by technology and want to end their lives already have a recognized constitutional right to stop any and all medical interventions, from respirators to antibiotics.” And second, survey data show that a “significant majority of Americans oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia except in the limited case of a terminally ill patient with uncontrollable pain.”
The only statement I could find from Obama was when he was questioned during the presidential campaign about physician-assisted suicide. He said, “I am in favor of palliative medicine in circumstances where someone is terminally ill. ... I'm mindful of the legitimate interests of states to prevent a slide from palliative treatments into euthanasia. On the other hand, I think that the people of Oregon did a service for the country in recognizing that as the population gets older we've got to think about issues of end-of-life care.”
What's Wrong With Arguments Against the Right To Die?
As far as the Religious Right’s intransigent opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, their argument is entirely based on religion beliefs about what God says. If their argument were to prevail legally, it would be an horrific violation of the separation of church and state (a quest they appear never to give up on).
Ezekiel Emmanuel’s arguments derive from pragmatism and collectivism when he says that patients can refuse life-sustaining care anyway (and then supposedly die), and that society should do what the majority wants according to polls. What about what the individual wants? Mr. Ewert said, “If someone wants to take their own life, you may not think it’s a good reason, but it’s that person’s life.” Nothing in Dr. Emmanuel’s argument says that an individual owns his own life.
Theologian Robert Jones is making a theoretical allegation that the poor, disabled and uninsured will be unjustly pressured to prematurely end their lives because of economic circumstances or perceptions of their “value” as human beings (in the case of the disabled). He provides no evidence to support this absurd and inflammatory position.
As far as Obama, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Palliative Care is a specialty medical service that deals with the relief of symptoms and stress associated with serious illness, regardless of the prognosis. Palliative care has nothing whatsoever to do with assisted suicide or euthanasia, and it is ridiculous to consider some possible “slide” from Palliative Care to assisted suicide/euthanasia. His ignorant argument is a nothing, and no more can be said of it.
The Right To Die is a Corollary of the Right to Life
Assisted suicide in the U.S. and Europe, and euthanasia in Europe are not Constitutionally-protected. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 ruled unanimously that assisted suicide is not Constitutionally-protected, but up to the states to decide. In Europe, laws were enacted by parliamentary law and subject to revision.
Ayn Rand said, “There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life."
As well-stated by Thomas Bowden in a 2007 Op-Ed,
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed, for the first time in the history of nations, that each person exists as an end in himself. This basic truth--which finds political expression in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--means, in practical terms, that you need no one's permission to live, and that no one may forcibly obstruct your efforts to achieve your own personal happiness.I would argue that the right to die is a corollary of the right to life. A free person does not belong to God, to the State, to the medical establishment or to anyone else. If a rational, competent person decides that life is not worth living because of illness, suffering, loss of a loved one, untreatable hopelessness, or whatever reason, then that person has the right to end his or her life. Just as one should be left free to pursue rational values that do not violate others' rights, one should be free to terminate their life on their terms (excluding obvious instances when that's not possible, like getting struck by lightening or a bus).
The right to choose one’s own death (if such a choice becomes possible) is as absolute as the right to one’s own life. Period.