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We should allow death with dignity in Hawai‘i

By Mary Steiner

Earlier this month, the death-with-dignity movement scored its greatest success in 20 years when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law on Oct. 5.

The new law allows terminally ill Californians to request a medication to bring about a peaceful death if their suffering becomes unbearable.

In his thoughtful and very personal statement, Brown said, “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

California is now the fifth state to authorize medical aid-in-dying.

A success such as this one “takes a village” to accomplish. The bill was spearheaded by one organization, Compassion & Choices, but it passed as a result of the tireless efforts of legislators, doctors and caregivers and members of faith organizations, and, most important, because of the large numbers of people who stepped up to tell their own stories and the stories of their loved ones. Often painful to tell, these are the stories that grab the hearts and minds of the public and bring about change.

One such story was that of Brittany Maynard. Brittany was an extremely courageous 29-year-old with aggressive terminal brain cancer. Over time, her symptoms degraded her quality of life. Brittany wanted control over her final days, without the fear that extreme suffering brings. To gain that control, Brittany moved from her home in California and settled with her family in Oregon, where she was able to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. She then set about sharing her story with the world, opening the eyes of millions to the importance of death with dignity.

Sadly, Brittany is gone, but her legacy tells us that putting faces on an issue brings a reality and an urgency that helps to move it forward. Her husband, mother and other family members worked tirelessly advocating for California’s End of Life Option Act.

Hawai‘i is no different. Several thousand people die from cancer and other debilitating and painful diseases here each year. Hospice does a wonderful job of easing many patients’ pain, but terminally ill people need options. We should be able to decide for ourselves when enough is enough. Our physicians and our families should know how we feel about death with dignity before we ever need to ask for their help in easing our pain, but too often the conversation is put off until our suffering becomes unbearable.

All available options should be discussed, early and often, including medical aid in dying. Such private discussions are exactly that — private — and they should never be decided for us by legislators, judges or people who would disallow us a full range of options.

Our state prides itself on aloha and caring for others. Remember Gov. Brown’s bill-signing message. He understands that the option of legal access to medical aid in dying could be a comfort for those who are terminally ill, and he believes it would be wrong to deny others this option, should they freely choose it.

Choice and dignity at the end of life are within our reach in Hawai‘i, too. Let’s work together to make aid in dying an open, accessible and legitimate medical practice in the Aloha State.