June 2013 Bar Bulletin
 
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June 2013 Bar Bulletin

Leaving on Your Own Terms: The Catch-22 of Dying with Dignity

By Ginny Nicarthy

 

The legislators who crafted the Death With Dignity Act must have found it a formidable challenge, and they are to be congratulated for reaching compromises that enabled voters to approve the Act.

But compromises present numerous challenges for those who claim the right to die with dignity at a time and in a manner they choose. The most daunting obstacle is the requirement that a doctor must verify that the person seeking assistance is expected to die naturally within six months. In other words, she is only seeking a "hastened death." So only a small pool of people can benefit from the law. Those who are plagued with conditions that cause significant pain, humiliation or grief are out of luck. Often they are doomed to suffering for months or years before death brings relief.

The Catch-22 is that it's legal for a person to take her own life. But it's a crime for anyone to help another carry out that act, which leaves people who are frail, disabled or relatively isolated helpless to take action on their own. To increase my understanding of those difficulties, I try to imagine myself in the following situations.

Suppose I'm a 70- or 80- or 90-year-old suffering a disease that is physically painful. Suppose I can't use the toilet, bathe or dress myself without help. My eyesight and hearing are both failing. I might endure several other disabling conditions. My mind is clear, but I feel closer to death than to life. I determine to end my life. But now I am faced with the challenge of how to do it.

I want to ask my doctor to prescribe whatever will enable me to die at a time I choose. But I'm afraid if I pose the question, the doctor might try to hospitalize me. So I have to ask someone else what I need and how to find it. But where can I find the right person to ask? Anyone who answers my questions could be arrested and jailed for assisting me.

The Internet might provide answers. But what if I don't know how to access it? Or my fingers are in too much pain or my vision too poor to make it feasible? I might have heard that there are some places where it is legal for doctors to give patients a drug that will help them die, under certain narrow circumstances. I start wondering what they give to patients who choose to die and I call an organization that promotes death with dignity. I ask what substance a doctor prescribes for someone who can legally be assisted in taking her life. I'm told that information can't be given out.

Perhaps I've heard of the Australian book that could answer many of my questions, but it has been banned in that country, and I don't know where to find a copy. If I somehow manage to locate the book, it will tell me what drug those doctors prescribe for the patients who qualify. If I can find a way to get the pills, I could mash them up, but how many will I need? I'm afraid I won't be able to do it right. If I have difficulty swallowing (a common problem with many illnesses), it will be a problem to take a lot of pills. Midway through the process I might vomit or fall asleep.

But I've heard that the book says it's best to take the drug in liquid form. I feel as if I'm getting somewhere, until I encounter still another roadblock. Though the liquid form is available in a few countries, it is not legal in the U.S. So I'm back to square one. But let's say I manage somehow to acquire the liquid. The book warns that the seal on the bottle may be hard to remove. If my hands are weak or curled up with arthritis, how will I open the bottle?


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