Death with Dignity?
|Tarris Rosell, PhD, DMin|
(“The Kansas Death with Dignity Act”)
What Kansans Need to Consider about House Bill No. 2150
How would you answer the following question if a Gallup pollster asked?
When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?
As of mid-2015, nearly 7 out of 10 Americans polled answered that question, “Yes,” including 48% of those who attend church weekly. The vast majority of Americans, and 81% of young adults ages 18-34, currently favor physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Are they right? Could that large a majority possibly be mistaken?
Kansas legislators, like those in most states, have had opportunity to consider making PAS legal. It is already legal, with restrictions and regulations, in several other states, most notably Oregon, Montana, Vermont and Washington, and as of this year California. The addition of California now makes the question relevant to 1 in 10 of all Americans. The 1994 Oregon “Death with Dignity Act” served as the model in California, and also for Kansas House Bill No. 2150, introduced last year. No hearing was held.
Governor Jerry Brown, a Catholic Christian, recently signed that CA legislation after much thought. Kansas Governor Brownback, also a Catholic, seems unlikely to sign such a bill even if it were to get out of committee and garner enough support to get through both chambers of the Kansas legislature. Is this good public policy? Or are we wrong-headed in the Heartland?
One of the influences credited with raising Gallup percentages especially among young people was the physician-aided death of 29-year old Brittany Maynard.
Brittany was living in California when diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer. After much research and discussion, Brittany decided to move with her husband and mother to Oregon so as to qualify for that state's "death with dignity" protocol. After establishing residency and meeting with physicians, Brittany received her lethal prescription of drugs, to be used or not at the recipient's will. If taken as a means to end life, Oregon law specifies that the drugs would need to be taken by Brittany's own hand. No one could do it for her.
Upon experiencing multiple seizures and cancer-related pain, Ms. Maynard decided to take a lethal dose of medications prescribed for this purpose, and thereby end her life on November 1, 2014. Close family and friends accompanied her at the time of departure. It was said to have been a peaceful death. Was it a "death with dignity?"
In a dialogue group I attend monthly, involving mostly physicians and chaplains, the Brittany Maynard case was discussed after viewing a six-minute YouTube video posted by Brittany prior to her death. I have facilitated discussion of this case with groups of seminarians and medical students, also. Each time, I poll the participants on their opinion of PAS. Regardless of the group, percentages mirror those of Gallup. So should the majority rule in Kansas on this matter?
A hospice physician friend suggested that Brittany Maynard might have utilized palliative care in hospice. He acknowledged that this could not guarantee a death without pain and suffering, but that hospice care places value on a dying patient’s dignity. Indeed, most surely do, and most hospice deaths seem relatively peaceful. This is what I, and most bioethicists I know, advocate rather than expanding access to PAS. It may well be that the American majority has been misled, and that the better way to achieve death with dignity is to promote palliative and hospice care—especially for those groups who don’t have access to comprehensive care. But really, for all of us.
Brittany and at least 859 other terminally ill patients in Oregon over the course of the last 15 years or so, have chosen a different route to their deaths. Even in Oregon this remains a remote event, affecting only about 3 deaths in 1,000. I don’t condemn them nor their assisting physicians. Condemnation gets us nowhere good. I urge thoughtful and respectful ethics dialogue instead.
I advocate for better advance care planning, earlier end-of-life conversations between patients and their physicians, and more robust discussions about goals of care in advance of health crises. Increased public funding seems necessary so as to train more palliative care and hospice physicians. More research, and research funding, is needed for rigorous evaluation of the care currently being provided to dying patients.
This seems to me the better path to death with dignity, not only in the Heartland but everywhere.
How does it seem to you?
Tarris Rosell, PhD, DMin, is the Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics.