The “Death with Dignity” Movement

By Marilyn Smith

California. Oregon. Vermont. Montana. Washington. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called “assisted suicide” or “right to die,” these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and prolonged death.

Centuries of medical ethics, however, can be difficult to change. One of the most well-known “right to die” cases is that of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was severely brain damaged following a collapse at age 26 while at home with her husband. Terri’s case was appealed to every state and federal venue possible. Ultimately, Terri’s feeding tube was finally discontinued on March 18, 2005 and she died 13 days later on March 31st.

Maine’s numerous health and religious organizations are strongly opposed to this bill (L.D. 1270). Just this past September, Maine’s Senate rejected the bill (18-17) only to see the House pass the bill (76-70). The bill will now head back to the Senate. As someone who witnessed the agonizing illness and dying of a parent, I personally am advocating for a change in the current Maine law. When all hope was lost and the diagnosis was terminal, my dad did not have the will to live any longer. Shouldn’t he have had the right to end his life? If we believe every human has a “right to life,” then doesn’t every human have a “right to die” since dying is a part of life?

For two years our lives were nothing but doctors, hospitals, surgeons, physical therapists, and social workers. From the moment my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, our lives were turned upside down. He had weeks of inpatient chemotherapy, outpatient radiation, and then suffered a major heart attack and had quadruple bypass surgery. He had numerous complications, months of rehab, and about $10,000 per month in prescription drugs for which he had no drug coverage. A second heart attack followed with more rehab and more drugs.

A few months later he developed an infection in his foot that wouldn’t heal. It grew worse by the day and we were advised that his right foot needed to be amputated…more surgery, more rehab, more drugs. The wound from the amputation did not heal and another infection set in, so a few weeks later he lost the rest of his right leg. My mom worked as full-time nurse and could not afford to leave her job to take care of him as the medical bills and prescription drug costs were mounting. I took a leave of absence from my job to take him to his doctor appointments, radiation treatments, and physical therapy.

In the meantime, my parents went through their life savings, including their retirement savings, and were going to lose their home. During one of my daily visits to his hospital room, I sat there looking at him while he napped and I thought to myself, Who is this man? This is not my dad anymore. When he woke, I helped to get him out of bed, get him dressed, and changed his bed linens. As he sat in the chair, this big, strong man who I idolized growing up – the man who provided for and took great care of his family – simply broke down and cried. All of his doctors agreed on one thing: he was not going to recover. He was too weak and had suffered too much trauma between the cancer, heart attacks, and amputations.

My dad pleaded for the madness to stop. He wanted the pain and suffering to end. He felt he was a burden to his family. All hope was lost and he became depressed, which his doctors wanted to treat with more medication. Where does it end? My parents lost everything, but most importantly, however, my dad lost whatever dignity he had left.

Several weeks later he died in that same hospital bed. I would have done anything in my power for him to have had the option of dying with dignity. Our culture tells us that we should fight hard against age, illness and death. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas wrote. Dying is something that we all have to go through. It is a sacred thing and I believe it is a time in one’s life that should be peaceful. I feel individuals should be able to make their own end-of-life decisions when faced with a terrible, painful, prolonged death.

Aside from the physical pain, there are many other varieties of suffering that accompany an illness or disease, such as dehumanization, loss of independence, loss of control, a sense of meaninglessness or purposelessness, loss of mental capabilities, loss of mobility, and disorientation and confusion, to name a few. I am hopeful that the national discussion and the increased awareness of the issue over the last year will help Maine lawmakers vote to enact this new law.

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