Op-Ed: Civil liberty should include freedom to decide on dying as well as living

Protecting civil liberties requires us to defend certain choices and an individual’s right to make them.

Most of the choices we defend involve how people live. However, American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and Compassion & Choices-Connecticut are allied in believing that people have a right to make informed decisions about the end of their lives as well.

Op-ed submit bugIn the coming weeks, our lawmakers will be debating the deeply personal choice of aid-in-dying and how to manage the challenging relationship between what is essentially a private decision and good public policy.

We feel the proposal heading to the legislature balances that tension well. It does so by recognizing several important factors.

First, aid-in-dying must be available only to those who truly need it. The proposed legislation does that by requiring that a person be terminally ill with less than six months to live.

Second, decisions are not made alone. Just as the ACLU would never send a client to defend him or herself in court, we believe that a terminally ill person’s decision to hasten death should be made with the guidance of a physician, loved ones, and with other available resources, such as counseling and pastoral assistance.

All of this has been accomplished in the Connecticut legislation.

The proposed law would require two written requests, with a 15-day waiting period in between them, in order to obtain a prescription for “aid in dying” from a doctor. The process would be recorded in detail by physicians and a second opinion would be mandatory.

Counseling would be available to the patient as well as the right to withdraw the request at any time. And witnesses are required for any aid-in-dying request to be considered.

Lastly, it’s also important to remember that a choice is not a decision nor is it an action. Where aid-in-dying is available, many who requested the prescription have chosen not to use it.

In Oregon, which offers the best documented example of aid-in-dying legislation in action, the option is seldom used. However, it offers incalculable comfort to terminally ill people who can now make a decision about the threshold of suffering they decide to endure.

Oregonian authorities report that in 2014, they prescribed lethal medication for 155 terminally ill people but only 105 actually chose to take it. Of those 105 people, 93 percent were in hospice care.

The proposal now before our lawmakers is similar to the law that is currently operating in Oregon.

There are a number of things that aid-in-dying is not.

Attempts to liken aid-in-dying to suicide are both wrong and misleading. This bill provides for a choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill individual—made in consultation with a physician—about whether or not to hasten his or her impending death.

Aid-in-dying is no more suicide than essential surgery is self-mutilation.

Nor is it accurate to suggest that existing aid-in-dying policies are rife with abuse.

In states like Oregon where aid-in-dying has been available for 17 years there has not been a single confirmed case of misuse, abuse or coercion, and end of life care has measurably improved with expanded use of hospice care.

The concerns raised about aid-in-dying should not quash the bill. Rather they can—and have already— been assuaged with smart safeguards.

Currently, terminally ill, mentally competent people have few options at the end of their lives.

That is simply not right.

If we respect people’s decisions about life, we must also give equal respect to their personal assessments regarding end of life decisions.

Stephen Glassman is executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut.  Tim Appleton is campaign manager for Compassion & Choices-Connecticut

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