On Wednesday the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare will hear testimony on the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act. This bill would allow terminally ill and mentally competent adult patients the right to access medications to end their suffering and their lives. The legislation replicates laws already passed in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.
Last year 29 year old Brittany Maynard forever changed the discourse on this subject. When diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Maynard and her husband moved to Oregon to take advantage of the Death with Dignity Act passed there in 1998. She died on her own terms, surrounded by those she loved on November 1.
Maynard publicly demonstrated that how we face death is a matter of personal ethics, informed by our beliefs and our conscience. No one should dictate the way we die any more than they should dictate the way we live, yet too often we see those dealing with difficult, end-of-life decisions being infantilized, as if terminal disease trumps our autonomy and humanity.
National Right to Life, which opposes Death with Dignity legislation, reduced Maynard to little more than a pawn, arguing that she was exploited by Compassion and Choices, a national right to die group, for its own “malevolent purposes.” In this view Maynard is not a person with thoughts, dreams, beliefs and values. Instead she’s an object of pity, defined only by her disease.
Had Maynard been unable to take advantage of the Oregon law, her suffering would not have been her choice, but an edict decreed by the government, or a commandment from someone else’s god. We don’t easily allow such impositions in our lives. Why would we allow their intrusion when we die?
When confronting an end-of-life burdened with intolerable pain and suffering, people should know that their right to end their own life safely and on their own terms is protected. The ability to choose whether to fight another day or to end our suffering empowers us. It is our ability to choose, in death as well as life, that makes us human.