When reading Katie Hafner’s piece in the Times about “who picks assisted suicide” (August 11, 2012), I found she clearly reinforces some of the conclusions I came to in my book, At Liberty to Die. First of all, very few terminally ill patients want to die on their own terms. Most want to live as long as they can and then, in hospice, with palliative care, or through terminal sedation, die peacefully. The very small number of dying patients, living in Oregon and Washington, who seek a prescription for the medication that will end their life, do so because of their strong beliefs about, and love of, life—the life they led before the terminal illness and the quality of life since their fatal illness.
This gets to Hafner’s second affirmation of my conclusions, that unremitting pain is not a factor in the patients’ choice to die with dignity. Nearly all those who took advantage of the death with dignity statutes did so for other another fundamental reason: the stark loss of the quality of life they led before they became terminally ill. Not able to bike, or hike, sail, walk, or do any of the activities they took great happiness in partaking in before they were struck down with the cancer, or the ALS, they choose to die on their own terms. “My life, my choice,” is the mantra they have lived their lives and it is their choice to die their way. Not in a hospital room, with its machines that keep them alive but not living, but in a setting of their choice, surrounded with only those who they want to be there—all celebrating life!
A third point Hafner makes that mirrors what I have written is that groups, such as minorities, along with the poor, disabled, and uneducated, are not the terminally ill patients who seek the prescriptions to end their lives. More than 9 in 10 who received the prescriptions were relatively affluent, white, elderly. Nearly all had college degrees. Such data nullifies a major argument of the critics of death with dignity laws: that this legislation will ultimately turn into euthanasia—initially voluntary and then involuntary (as happened in Nazi Germany). This is the infamous “slippery slope” argument. And this has not come to pass, nor will it in a non-totalitarian society. (The statutes themselves have critical screening points that prevent such an action.)
My life, my choice! A small number of dying persons do not want to live a life devoid of living as they have been. They want to retake control of their lives. They have the constitutional, moral, and philosophical liberty to die with dignity. That is all they ask of us!
Howard Ball is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and University Scholar at the University of Vermont and Adjunct Professor of Law at Vermont Law School. He is the author of At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death with Dignity in America.