Human beings, to the end, should have the right to decide their own destiny

Do we, as a society, treat our dogs better than ourselves?

This question occurred to us last week as we talked to Eleanor Aronstein, the founder of the Capital District chapter of the Final Exit Network.  In the 1970s, she had watched her mother die a slow and painful death from ovarian cancer. “She was much too young. She suffered for 11 months. If my mother had been a dog,” said Aronstein, “we would have euthanized her...I was powerless to do anything about it.”

We remember last year euthanizing our beloved terrier.  Scans showed his body was riddled with cancer. He was in pain and would not live long. We held him as a skilled veterinarian inserted an IV that carried fluid to kill him — gently, quietly. He looked in our eyes till his lids closed and his body went limp.

People, of course, have to think for themselves and should be allowed to make their own decisions as they face death.

Aronstein urged us to watch a video made by Brittany Maynard. She made the tape last fall, the day she died.  Maynard, at 29, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. She moved with her husband to Oregon, one of three states — Vermont and Washington are the others — that have passed laws to allow lethal prescriptions for terminally ill adults.

“I will die upstairs, in the bedroom I share with my husband,” Maynard says, looking resolute but not frightened. “I hope my family is proud of me and the choice I’ve made.”

She describes how she has gotten sicker each day since her diagnosis, suffering “terrifying seizures,” and her husband talks about how they take one day at a time. “You take away all the material stuff,” he says and focus on “moments that really matter.”

“It’s not my job to tell her how to live. It’s not my job to tell her how to die,” says Maynard’s mother.

Maynard, an only child, says in her farewell video she wants her mother to recover from her death and her husband to go on and be happy and have a family.

We found Maynard’s commitment to a cause as she was dying both stunning and convincing.

We, like Aronstein, have watched people we love suffer as they face death and wished there were a way to stop the suffering, a way they could have the kind of control — and the peace and dignity that comes with it — which Maynard had.

Aronstein is hosting a forum this Thursday, April 16 — find details in our article at — on end-of life issues. Within our lifetime, over the last half-century, our society has become more accepting of death, of recognizing it as an inevitable part of life.

The hospice movement has allowed patients who choose to, to die in their own homes and more on their own terms rather than in a hospital setting where decisions are made for them. But we still have a long way to go.

Many of us are personally uncomfortable talking about our death or the death of people we love. Hedi McKinley, a social worker who does not mince words, told us about the importance of having “The Conversation.” Parents must tell their grown children how they want to die, what measures for prolonging life are acceptable to them, and which are not.

We urge everyone to follow her advice. Have the conversation, pick a proxy who will carry out those wishes, and put it in writing. It will make the death easier for everyone — the dying as well as the bereaved.

That was certainly on Maynard’s mind the day she died.

Compassion & Choices, another group dealing with end-of-life issues, has posted Maynard’s video on its website and lists bills in 17 states that were proposed following Maynard’s death; one of them is New York.

The End-Of-Life-Options Act (S3685 in the Senate and A02129 in the Assembly) would authorize the prescription of aid-in-dying medication to people with terminal illnesses, which the bill defines as “incurable and irreversible...that has been medically confirmed that will result in death within six months.” Both bills are stuck in committee. The act would require a form be signed by “the qualified individual and by two witnesses” and there would be no liability or sanctions where the health-care provider participated “in good faith.”

We understand there are religious and secular traditions that honor the sanctity of life and the belief that an individual cannot or should not decide on the time or means of death; rather, it is up to a supreme being. This law would not preclude people from following those beliefs.

The reality is that modern medical practices keep extending lifetimes. What was once considered a “natural death,” is now oftentimes happily postponed for many years.

This law, if it were passed, would deal with patients who were to die within six months. It would give them autonomy — the chance to make their own decision about the time and means, the way Maynard chose to be in her bedroom, surrounded by people she loved.

There is also an issue of justice. Right now, some terminally ill patients in New York and elsewhere can refuse treatment and so will die, on their own terms, by making that decision. But patients who are not on life support — like dialysis or respirators — cannot end their suffering by refusing treatment; they must linger and suffer horribly.

Suffering can mean more than pain; patients can lose not only their independence but also their sense of self and dignity.  If they are mentally fit, they should have the right to die before they are no longer themselves, to end the worry of burdening others as well.

The fact is that assisted death is already occurring in states like New York where the laws have not caught up to the modern reality. An underground system has no safeguards and can go awry. Having the practice legalized would be safer and more fair.

As human beings, we have the right to die with dignity.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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