The Ongoing Debate Over Death with Dignity

  • Clifford M. Cohen,
  •   Elder Law
  •   Comments Off on The Ongoing Debate Over Death with Dignity

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans support laws allowing patients to seek the assistance of a physician in ending their life. Another Gallup poll, conducted in 2018, found that 72% of Americans believe doctors should be allowed by law to end a terminally ill patient’s life if the patient and his or her family request it.

State Laws on Death With Dignity

Nevertheless, physician-assisted suicide, commonly referred to as “death with dignity,” is illegal in the vast majority of states. Maine recently became the ninth state to allow medical aid in dying (the law will take effect on January 1, 2020). The District of Columbia passed such a law in 2015. The state of Maryland, on the other hand, began debating a death with dignity bill in 2015 but so far no law has been passed.

It is important to note that even in the jurisdictions where assisted suicide is allowed, a person must be deemed terminally ill and cognitively healthy enough to lucidly communicate the wish to end his or her life prematurely.

The Debate Over Death With Dignity Laws

physician assisted suicideClearly, the concept of death with dignity is highly controversial. Supporters argue that individuals should have the right to exercise control over the final stage of their life and, if they so choose, end their lives with dignity, on their own terms. Opponents point to moral, ethical, and religious considerations; public safety; concerns that death with dignity laws could be used to target people with disabilities; and that while a patient might be deemed mentally fit, he or she may actually be unable to make a sound end-of-life decision, or that the patient’s decision could change from one day to the next.

As for the medical community, its official position is clear: The American Medical Association states that physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer. That is, doctors should be committed to preserving life, not taking it. Of course, the AMA’s stance does not prevent a physician from assisting with a patient’s death in jurisdictions where it is legal.

The Future of Physician-Assisted Suicide Laws

So, what does the future hold for the concept of death with dignity? We have seen that nearly three out of four Americans favor it. Some “experts” have argued that the aging baby boomer generation, which values autonomy and self-determination, will increase the number of seniors who support death with dignity. Moreover, in 2018 death with dignity bills were introduced (or carried over from 2017) in 19 states.

Numbers like these encourage supporters of death with dignity to believe the tide is turning in their favor. However, the issue is so emotionally charged, it’s difficult to believe that meaningful legislation will become the law in most states anytime soon.