I remember sitting in one of my classes as an undergraduate and hearing my Management of Aging Services professor tell the story of an elderly man she had worked with who had lost his will to live. Most of the people he loved had already gone and he wished to die. The whole class, a night class made up mostly of middle-aged women, let out a collective groan, as if to say “How sad! We are in this freakin’ long class on a freakin’ Thursday night to help him! Where is he? Let us help him!” in one drawn-out syllable. The professor then said something that left me shaking.
“In a few years, you won’t be sad. You will have come to realize that some people should be able to choose when they want to go. You can’t afford to keep the baby boomers alive forever. We will be too big a strain on the health care system.”
One of my classmates smiled, looked at my professor with dreamy eyes, and said, “That’s why ‘Right To Die’ is gonna pass.”
After the class, I went back to my apartment trembling. If I greeted either of my roommates, I don’t remember. I closed the door to my tiny bedroom, curled up on my rickety desk chair, and wondered what I should have said. What I should have done. If I could have stopped the seemingly two-second culture change that just took place in that Baltimore classroom.
The Maryland “Right to Die” bill was taken off the docket in 2017, but a similar measure passed in the District of Columbia on February 18 of this year. After the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 22-14 to block the measure, opponents of the bill hoped Congress would follow suit. They were wrong, and this dangerous bill was turned into law.
While it is too early to have much in the way of statistics for the DC law, much research has been done on the Oregon “Death with Dignity” act. The law legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1997, and prescriptions for lethal drugs have risen at alarming rates in Oregon, from 24 prescriptions in 1998 to 204 prescriptions in 2016. Since 1997, 1,749 lethal prescriptions have been written in Oregon.
When people think of assisted suicide, they may think of the famous 2014 case of Brittany Maynard, a beautiful young woman tragically struck by a terminal brain tumor. Maynard wanted people to respect her choice to die in peace when she decided the time was right and her suffering became too great. According to Oregon’s statistics, however, most assisted suicides are not like this. Assisted suicide disproportionately affects the elderly. In 2016, the average age at time of death of those who died from assisted suicide in Oregon was 73 years, and 80.5% of those who died by ingesting lethal drugs were over age 65. Shockingly, in 2016 as well as other years, being a burden on caregivers was cited by more people (48.9%) as a reason for asking for lethal drugs than concerns about pain (35.3%,). Since 1998, 3.4% of people who committed assisted suicide in Oregon have chosen to die because of financial issues, such as a lack of money for medical care. So my professor was right in saying that there is an economic advantage to helping people take their own life.
The solution to ending assisted suicide lies in the reasons people resort to it. Elderly people need to know their lives are worth more than the responsibility they place on caregivers. Doctors need to be more invested in palliative care to relieve the pain of the dying. When a doctor is spending her time lobbying to legally kill her patients rather than figuring out how to best serve them while they are alive, there is a huge problem. Also, of course, no one should choose to die because they feel they cannot afford to live.
In our society, the loss of autonomy, physical pain, and lack of financial means can often negate a person’s human rights. It should not be this way. We need to create a society where no person feels as if it would be better to die. We need to create a society where all people realize their lives are highly valued and their rights are non-negotiable.