DEATH WITH DIGNITY — Observing An Open Community Discussion

Death with Dignity refers, in this case, to a law being proposed in the NJ state legislature which will allow a select group of patients which documentation of a life expectancy of less than six months to choose their time of death.  It is based on an Oregon law which has withstood challenge before the Supreme Court of this land.  As in Oregon, it would be a strictly regulated law requiring the patient to be physically capable of ingesting their lethal dose of drug and be mentally and emotionally stable.  It is, in essence, physician assisted suicide but is not euthanasia in which a physician actively gives the lethal drugs. 

I attended a conference which was composed of four speaker– two in favor and two against the pending legislation.  In favor were an attorney acting as a lobbyist as well as a PhD from Oregon who was also speaking from his experience in that state.  Against the bill were a proponent of Hospice and Palliative Care in New Jersey and a practicing oncologist.  Each spoke of the ability of present modalities such as hospice and palliative care to offer relief from suffering without resorting to assisted suicide.  The oncologist was particularly concerned about transforming the traditional role of the physician as promoting healing rather than death.  Most compelling to me was the audience’s comments.  Several asked whether a loved-one with a defined role as health care proxy could have the drugs ordered for a patient who was incapable of administering their own meds.  The two proponents of the bill were quick to distinguish these requests from the defined limitations of the act as it is proposed—no family member could assist in this activity.  The patient themselves must be competent to take the lethal dose themselves. 

Perhaps the moist poignant comment/statement of the day come from an audience member to questioned the physician’s perspective. 

 “In the face of terminal suffering, isn’t death the ultimate healing? So why should physician’s be against that?” 

To me the importance of this conference was its very existence.  We need to open up dialogue, however painful, to the community at large.  In an a society which shuns any discussion at all of our ultimate fate, the sooner we explore this final taboo the better.  Let talk begin. 

And by the way– I agree with that last audience member.  Under certain circumstances when there is overwhelming suffering and in which there is no hope of offering palliation or cure, death can be the ultimate path to healing.