End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts Taggedright to die

Where’s our right to die?

By Santiago Wills
Salon
July 3, 2012

Just a couple of weeks ago, the British Columbia Supreme Court fired the latest volley in North America’s long and dramatic debate about physician-assisted suicide. In a 395-page ruling, Justice Lynn Smith claimed that the Canadian constitution didn’t prevent doctors from aiding suffering patients who wished to end their lives — a position that kicked up attention south of the border as well.

During the past two decades, similar contested rulings have opened the way for physician-assisted death in the United States. Despite strong opposition from religious organizations and groups representing handicapped and disabled people, Oregon and Washington state legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1997 and 2008, respectively. In fact, since 1997, more than 900 people in Oregon have received a prescription to commit suicide, while in Washington, nearly 300 people have requested a similar death in the last four years.

Assisted suicide, to put it mildly, is a controversial subject — and one that continues to be fought over vociferously by both right-to-die activists and religious groups. But according to Howard Ball, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, the legalization of physician-assisted death is a gesture of human compassion. As he details in his new book, “At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death With Dignity in America,” the issue goes to the heart of bigger questions about the American soul — from the meaning of personal liberty to the importance of constitutional law.

Salon spoke to Ball over the phone about the evolution of death, Jack Kevorkian and the right-to-die movement’s legal hopes.

Amy’s Story

By Persis Oberreither, a Compassion & Choices member and author of Pinky-Swear: Honoring My Daughter’s Right to Die, talks about the important conversations about end-of-life choice she had with her daughter, Amy.

Amy and my mother were very close, even though my parents lived more than five hundred miles away. Amy and I would make the trip to visit them a couple of times a year, and she and my mother had become the best of friends. By the time Amy turned sixteen, my mother was suffering terribly in the grip of end-stage Parkinson’s disease. She could barely walk or talk. She needed someone to feed her. She was confused most of the time.

Amy was heartbroken to see that her beloved grandmother’s quality of life had so diminished. After leaving my parents’ apartment one evening, Amy said to me, “Promise me that you’ll never make me live like that.” I promised. Then she grabbed my arm and pleaded, “No, Mom. Really promise me.” We hooked little fingers in a “pinky swear” that I would honor her wishes.

A couple of years later, Amy found me sitting at our dining room table one afternoon reviewing my living will, as it was called at the time. She asked me what it was, and I explained to her that having a living will allows you to keep control over your own health care decisions if ever you can’t speak for yourself. Amy emphatically expressed her desire to have her own living will, so within a week or two, we had one drawn up for her.

Six months later, Amy was in a horrific car accident and sustained a devastating brain injury. The night of her accident, as she lay in the intensive care unit on full life support, the nurse asked me if Amy had a living will. When I told her she did, the nurse’s jaw dropped. She said she’d never known of an eighteen-year-old with a living will.

It goes without saying that Amy’s dad and I were very hopeful Amy would not only survive but would eventually recover the basic quality of life that she so required. But it wasn’t to be. Amy’s neurosurgeon had worn a grim expression as he delivered the news to us that Amy would live. From there, over a period of weeks, her condition deteriorated. She was destined to live, with no life.

My ability to do the right thing for Amy by honoring her wishes and allowing her to die was contingent, first of all, on my knowing exactly what her feelings were regarding quality of life; what she needed me to do if such a tragedy as this ever struck.

Secondly…I had to love her that much.

Persis Oberreither graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with a degree in philosophy, worked as a paramedic, and was a stay-at-home mom while Amy was growing up. After Amy’s death, Persis wrote Pinky-Swear: Honoring My Daughter’s Right to Die, and has worked as a hospice volunteer. She is a member of Compassion & Choices, Bereaved Parents of the USA, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Her book can be ordered here through our online bookstore.

People of any age can let their loved ones know the treatment choices they would want if they were unable to express them. Download an advance directive/living will here.