Death with dignity. It’s a phrase that’s been in the news a lot lately and clearly holds a different meaning for each of us.
And it’s a concept that has progressed from the creation of the first hospice in the UK, to the passage of the Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, the public battles faced by a dying California woman and back to Britain where a best-selling novel tackles the subject head-on. No matter where you stand on the issue, it stirs up a lot of emotions.
When Dame Cicely Saunders came up with the idea of hospice to care for the terminally ill in the mid 20th century, little did she know she’d be starting a revolution. The British physician suggested treating dying patients with palliative care -- instead of trying to cure them. The idea of “death with dignity” was born. And now it’s back in the news taking on a controversial life of its own.
The focus moved to keeping the patient comfortable – allowing them to enjoy the time they had left. By the turn of the century the idea was widely accepted and hugely popular. And it still is – to the extent that patients are allowed to die without intervention.
But then the idea expanded to include physician-assisted suicide. And popular opinion on that? Well, let’s just say it’s a little more polarizing.
Remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian? A proponent of physician-assisted euthanasia for those with terminal diseases, he was widely known for his “suicide machine” which was designed to end the lives of terminal patients. But after he performed the procedure live on 60 Minutes, he was prosecuted for second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Kevorkian may have been a bit ahead of his time. But the idea took hold. As expected, opinions were strongly divided.
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court went so far as to rule that patients could choose to refuse life-saving interventions such as surgery, feeding tubes, and CPR. “Do Not Resuscitate” – or DNR – became a common phrase in health care.
And over the next 26 years, six states (to date) have taken that a step further. Oregon led the way in 1994, by passing its “Death and Dignity Act.” Residents that are terminally ill can get a legal prescription for lethal drugs that will end their lives. Supporters argue that it is more humane –and less risky. The prescription is controlled and it prevents attempted – and often failed – attempts at suicide by uninformed patients who want to end their own suffering.
Since then, Oregon has been joined by California, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington in enacting bills allowing doctors to actively assist in the death of a terminally ill patient.
And then came Brittany Maynard. The 29-year-old California woman was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor – and suddenly became the face of Death With Dignity. At the time of her diagnosis, her home state was not among those that supported assisted suicide. So she and her husband moved to Oregon.
She partnered with right-to-die group Compassion and Choices and made a video explaining her decision – while advocating for the passage of similar laws throughout the country. The video went viral worldwide.
And around that same time, a book written by British author JoJo Moyes, called Me Before You, began to pick up steam worldwide. Soon to be a major motion picture (coming out June 3), the best-selling book became hugely popular with book clubs. The star-crossed romance tackles this very subject – prompting the type of discussion that book clubs love.
The main character is unquestionably Lou Clark, who takes a job as caregiver to Will Traynor, a young man who had the world by the tail – until an accident changed his life and left him paralyzed. Before the two meet, he made the decision to end his life with the help of Swiss death with dignity group, Dignitas.
The rest makes for a good story. And an important discussion -- not only for book clubs, but people everywhere. Where do you stand? Would your feelings change if you were about to die? It’s certainly something to think about.