Right-to-die is a 21st Century Issue We need to Come to Grips With

The value of life not only compels us to live fully but to also acknowledge that for some, ending it with dignity is equally compelling.


In a recent BBC interview renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking touched on the issue of euthanasia.   People familiar with Hawking know him as the quadriplegic, who contracted a motor neuron disease at age 21 and has been wheel chair-bound for the last 50 years.

“I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and those who help them should be free from prosecution,” Hawking told the BBC.

“There must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and are not being pressurized into it or have it done without their knowledge and consent as would have been the case with me.”

Hawking himself once faced an end-of-life situation when he was put on a life support machine after suffering pneumonia in 1985.  His wife, Jane, was asked if she wanted to remove him from life supports, to which she refused.    But Hawking’s comments in the BBC interview suggest that should a similar life-threatening circumstance once again arise, the right to choose and end-of-life option should be available to him.

I raise this issue not so much because Hawking’s celebrity makes it more noteworthy but simply serves as an opening to discuss a sensitive issue we all fear of facing someday.  A personal decision to end our lives when the quality of life leaves us solely dependent on others or our physical condition is wrenched with intolerable pain on a daily basis.

Choosing to end the only life we have and may ever know seems so antithetical to how we were raised.  Though death may be viewed as an inevitable part of life it is not something we assume that needs our assistance.   For many with strong religious convictions life should only end when the natural forces that created it have been removed in some fashion.  Yet we make exceptions for this in cases of war and criminal executions.

Killing animals too for sport is acceptable because it’s claimed it serves as a means to cull herds before they outgrow the areas they feed from.  Areas that humans have yet to claim for themselves for further private and commercial development.  Hell, even our pets receive better end-of-life compassion than some humans do

 pet euthanasiaFrom the vet website Drs. Foster and Smith


When asked recently in an unscientific poll on the MSNBC browser 72% of the respondents stated that assisted suicide should be an option in one’s life.  In more scientific polls the vote is only slightly less disparate.  Late last year an NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll showed that 55 percent of respondents favor physician-assisted suicide for people with less than six months to live.   A BBC World News America/Harris Poll conducted in January, 2011 also found that 70% of respondents agreed “that people who are terminally ill, in great pain and who have no chance of recovery should have the right to choose to end their lives.”

But if the public favors this option, it appears that physicians are less likely to according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine poll that found 65% of its readers, who are primarily doctors and other medical professionals, were opposed to this end-of-life practice for reasons that conflicted with their oath to save lives.   The national Right to Life foundation jumped all over this poll to validate their position on euthanasia and picked apart the criticism some have with the results of the NEJM survey.  How valid this poll reflects the attitudes of all physicians is a legitimate concern however since many who read that journal failed to participate in the poll.

But I saw something in this vote by the NEJM readers that may explain the hesitancy we all have to some degree about being a party to end one’s life.  Not only do doctors and other medical professionals devote their lives to the well-being of their human patients but the nurturing nature in all of us overwhelms any inclination to do the opposite, especially as it relates to personal family and friends.  Recognizing that under certain conditions terminally ill patients would be more at peace if allowed to end their lives, it is none-the-less difficult for any of us to accompany that need on our own.  Thus the higher number in the polls that favor physician assisted suicide.

All states do honor end-of-life directives initiated by the patients prior to any serious health lapse.  The do not resuscitate (DNR) order is good only in hospitals settings where a person’s conditions rely on life support mechanisms to keep them alive or where heroic measures like CPR are necessary to bring back someone whose vital signs have flat-lined.  This takes the responsibilities of making the tough call out of the hands of people who are close to the patient.

But there are only a handful of states currently that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with the assist from a medical professional while all others continue to deny the choice of people who must endure a quality of life that is undignified.  It is especially difficult in dealing with ending the life of people who are conscious but are faced with a lifetime of insufferable pain as a consequence of some disease they have contracted.

Incurable ailments that wrench their host with unbearable physical pain on a daily basis shouldn’t be forced on anyone to endure in this manner.  The prospect that there may a be a cure around the corner is worth considering but if the evidence reveals that this is more the wishful thinking of family members who can’t face the death of a loved one, then it becomes an act of selfishness to prevent a choice one consciously makes to end their suffering through a legal system of suicide.



I have always found it odd that some of the greatest opponents to right-to-die legislation are the very people who rejoice in the hope that there is a better life beyond this one.  To believe that “only God can take a life” but then prohibit ending the suffering of terminally ill humans makes a mockery of a loving and just God.  The claim by many fundamentalist christians that the suffering we endure at the hands of others is part of some divine plan is merely cover for the belief they hold that God is in complete control of all things, even such tragic incidences like that on 9/11 or the mass killings that take place almost routinely these days such as the horror that occurred at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya

I was born and raised a christian and even considered myself born again at one critical time in my adult life.  Like so many other christians, I reluctantly bought into the notion that if good people die at the hands of bad people then God must have a purpose for this.  But I ultimately came to realize that if we have a “God-given” mental ability to analyze such notions with an insight that looks at things logically, such unreasonable conclusions just don’t fit into the scheme of a human being created “in the image and likeness” of a sane and just god.

Rather than trying to wrap our world around ancient notions that no longer carry the weight of mystery they once held, humans are gifted with the ability to rationalize behavior and study the cause and effect of our natural world.  To counteract this innate part of who we are through ideological ramblings of so-called holy men would be viewed as pathological in most every other circumstance.  Our traditional views imbedded in us as children by adults who feared the unknown works against our natural instincts and common sense.  Recall here the story about the drowning man.

A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”

The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”

So the rowboat went on and the water kept rising.

Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”

To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the motorboat went on and the water kept rising.

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”

To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the helicopter reluctantly flew away and the water kept rising.

It eventually rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”

To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

The man drowned because of his flawed view of what his faith required.  It is no different today when terminally ill people suffer needlessly as they linger for months and even years as others deny their right to die a dignified death based on some out of sync view.

We should all choose life while we can but when that time comes when life no longer allows us to be what we’re meant to be, choosing and end to life should not be something withheld from us.

13 responses to “Right-to-die is a 21st Century Issue We need to Come to Grips With

  1. There is something absurd about keeping a body alive when there is virtually (or sometimes absolutely) no chance of recovery or a quality life. We have technology to keep the body alive like a machine, but if the spirit – however one defines it – is not there, what is the point? But sometimes people just can’t let go – and at that point the choice is more about the living who don’t want to lose someone, rather than what is best for the person on death’s door. Excellent post.

    • Letting go is indeed tough to arrive at. I had to move my 83 year old Mom in with my wife and I about 6 years ago after finding she could no longer care for herself properly in some apartments that catered to the elderly a few blocks away. She was barely in a month before she passed. The day before she did, she had been in bed nearly two days without barely waking for even a meal or a restroom trip. That evening I went in and sat beside her and even got her to sit up. She wasn’t fully conscious and was very rigid as I wrapped my arms around her. I don’t know what possessed me but I whispered in her ear, “Let go, mom. It’s Okay. Let go because you’ll be okay and we will too.”

      I had my older brother and his wife come up the next day after informing him she seem close to leaving this world. He hadn’t been here an hour before she died. Just prior to that though he actually got her to open her eyes. When she did she looked at him and said, “I didn’t want to leave on your birthday” My older brother’s birthday was about 5 days away and somehow it seemed like she had been holding on until after that day had passed.

      But having made that affirmation and perhaps hearing me let her know it was okay to let go made it easier for ear to succumb to the inevitable

  2. It really shouldn’t be a difficult subject. A good life deserves a good death, but there’s something deep inside us that recoils when the subject of assisted-suicide comes up. My bet is on our innate fear of death; the very thing that has inspired all supernal dreams and its seen that if we tamper with that then all the magic we’ve weaved around the notion of an afterlife-life will simply vanish.

    Morally speaking, we’re lesser people for allowing suffering to continue. As you noted, it’s the hardest thing imaginable, but when our pets can longer walk or eat and the Vet tells us it’s time we force ourselves (kicking and screaming and fighting every inch) to cross that impossibly difficult line and put our friends to sleep. We do so for their sake, not ours. They never even knew our name.

    • I think the hesitancy for many, apart from certain religious convictions, is the uncertainty of what lies on the other side, as you alluded to but for others like me it is more about pain. I would undergo any pain to end it all if I were suffering terminal illness with excruciating pain but otherwise I would like my exit from this life to be as rapid and painless as possible

  3. They have been doing this oh so well in Scandinavian countries for a very long time now. We would do well to go to their model, but the wacko right will not allow it I’m very sure.

  4. Oregon passed a ballot initiative the ‘Death with Dignity Act’ which I believe has served us well. The Bush administration took it to the Supreme Court, which luckily upheld it.

    I think what bothers me most about a lot of religious folk is that they insist on their right to their beliefs, but it should stop short of trying to force those beliefs on others. No one is forcing these folks to be euthanized against their will, any more than they’re being forced into abortions or gay marriage, but what gives them the right to make these decisions for others who believe differently. Sorry, but god-given rights don’t cut it with me.

    • Yes, and for those of us who do not buy into their religious BS is like me telling them that the tooth fairy doesn’t want them to eat anything with sugar in it.

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