Imagine being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
This incurable illness of the brain first manifests itself as low-level weakness and muscle atrophy. Soon you’re unable to stand, get in and out of bed, speak, or swallow food. You depend on loved ones and professional caregivers for basic tasks like eating, bathing, and going to the bathroom. You are, in essence, a prisoner within your own body — fully conscious of the outside world, but unable to interact with it.
Imagine now the insufferable frustration of knowing that there is a way to end this anguish, depression, and indignity — but it’s illegal.
This is the plight of many of Americans who suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease and other debilitating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. For these individuals, one of the only chances at deliverance from their torture is physician-assisted suicide. Yet in most states — including Georgia — this option is against the law.
Opposition to physician-assisted suicide is understandable in the abstract. For many of us, death is something to be avoided at all costs, even when faced with incredibly dire prospects. The debate over physician-assisted suicide is really about the right of responsible adults to control their own lives. But physician-assisted suicide is not just an interesting, abstract discussion topic. Real people right now spend every minute of every day in agonizing torment. Such adults, afflicted by incurable and unrelenting pain, should, if determined and competent to decide, have the right to end their lives.
Demographic shifts are making the legalization of physician-assisted suicide more urgent, particularly when it comes to dementia. With more and more Americans living into old age, the incidence of destructive mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s is on the rise. Today, over 100,000 Americans are in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.
For many of these individuals, the disease has already consumed their minds while their loved ones are forced, impotently, to bear tragic witness. Physician-assisted suicide would spare patients and their families the wrenching emotional pain that accompanies their slow, inexorable descent into oblivion.
Fortunately, many states have begun to recognize the basic human right to die with dignity. Both Washington state and Oregon allow physician-assisted suicide. Montana’s Supreme Court recently ruled that it is legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill citizens. And Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation that would permit physician-assisted suicide.
Georgia has a long way to go before the essential freedom to die peacefully is recognized. Even the compassionate work of Final Exit Network (FEN), the organization I represent, has been met with strong opposition by Georgia’s state officials. In March, four of my colleagues were indicted in Forsyth County simply for providing information about suicide.
To be clear, FEN does not assist suicide nor do we encourage it. Instead, we are committed to supplying information and support to patients as they grapple with the most crucial decision of their lives: to end their misery or wait it out. (After discussing their options with Final Exit Network, many patients feel empowered to do the latter.)
Sadly, even these First-Amendment acts of counsel are under attack.
As medical science advances and people live longer, discussion of the freedom to take one’s own life will skyrocket. Just as a true conservative stands for individual liberty, so the members of the Georgia legislature should support keeping the government out of people’s private lives – and their deaths.
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