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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Is it “honorable” to use assisted suicide to die? - "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"

"Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" is a quotation attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Virginia Convention. It was given on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, and is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Reportedly, those in attendance, upon hearing the speech, shouted, "give me liberty or give me death!"

The quote “Give me Liberty, or give me Death” has become forever woven into the fabric of American culture.  It pronounces that there is valor and honor in fighting for the concept of liberty, the “American Dream”.  Throughout history the notion of “dying in battle” has been portrayed as glorious and heroic.  Death is not to be feared but honored.
Even today we have hundreds of thousands of American troops fighting wars and battles throughout the world, with Americans dying or being maimed each day.  We rightfully view their dedication to us as honorable.

So it makes one wonder why we have such issue as an American public discussing death, and the choices that are being made every day as to who lives and who dies.
Death panels?  Actually, in a way, yes.  Our current system is set up so that medical treatment is available to some but not all and that decisions as to who lives and who dies are being made daily by both the government and corporations.
So what do we agree upon about death?  Most agree that if a person decides not to continue with treatments (will not take pills) which would prolong their life, but not “cure them”, that such person has the right to die with dignity and refuse treatment.

Funny how when we change one simple word, “not”, so as to allow people to die with dignity, with the aid of modern medicine, we create a firestorm of debate as to “dying with dignity” versus “assisted suicide.”  Somehow we decide that valor, honor and heroism is saved only for those who die in battle.
HBO in “How to Die In Oregon”, winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) 2011 Sundance Film Festival, adds a human face to the question of dying with dignity.

Have you ever watched someone die from a terminal illness? 

Terminal illness is a medical term popularized in the 20th century to describe a disease that cannot be cured or adequately treated and that is reasonably expected to result in the death of the patient within a relatively short period of time.   A patient who has such an illness may be referred to as a terminal patient, terminally ill or simply terminal. Often, a patient is considered to be terminally ill when the life expectancy is estimated to be six months or less, under the assumption that the disease will run its normal course.
Some terminally ill patients stop all debilitating treatments to reduce unwanted side effects. Others continue aggressive treatment in the hope of an unexpected success. Still others reject conventional medical treatment and pursue unproven treatments such as radical dietary modifications. Patients' choices about different treatments may change over time.

According to Patient Refusal of Nutrition and Hydration: Walking the Ever-Finer Line American Journal Hospice & Palliative Care, pp. 8-13, March/April 1995:
People who feel they are near the end of their life often intentionally refuse food and/or water. Published studies indicate that "within the context of adequate palliative care, the refusal of food and fluids does not contribute to suffering among the terminally ill", and might actually contribute to a comfortable passage from life: "At least for some persons, starvation does correlate with reported euphoria."
So we allow people to starve themselves to death but we object to other more humane ways to end life?  So why do we view it as "heroic" for someone to suffer pain impossible to imagine until they ultimately die as opposed to assisted suicide for a terminal illness with no hope of survival?  Is it just the historical mythology of gladiators fighting to the death?  What is “heroic” or “honorable” about fighting pain and misery so intolerable that no rational person would endure it?
 Those who are opposed to the “right to die with dignity” say that it is “weak”, “that the dying person lacks “dignity”, that ending life (when terminally ill) is somehow different than dying with “courage” and “valor” and excruciating pain .    We Americans like our heroes to suffer?  Right?
Death is an inevitable part of life. 
If we give mothers drugs to bring us into “life”, then why are we so opposed to allowing adults with terminal illness the right to use the same to bring us to the “after-life”.  We are all headed there.   None of us are immune from death.  Or is it that various religious ideologies are being imposed upon us?  But that is why we have separation of Church and State so that no single religion should impose its doctrines on all of us.  It should remain a personal choice.
Peter Richardson’s documentary How to  Die in Oregon follows the lives, the decisions and the experiences of people with terminal  illnesses who consider whether to achieve a peaceful death using life-ending  medication under the guidelines of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
Why would you or should you watch what undoubtedly will be painful to watch?  Because that person suffering could be you, me, your mom or dad, or sister or brother, husband, wife or partner.   We all hate the thought of watching the people we love suffer.  We all want to know the answer to the question of “what is best for my mom (etc.).”
And that is the ultimate question, “what is right for the person dying?”  We all want our mom or dad to die with dignity.  Watching a loved one die is never easy.  But what is a “dignified” way to die?  And who gets to decide?
In 1994, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to legalize physician aid-in-dying.  At the time, only two countries (Switzerland and the Netherlands) permitted the practice, but more than 500 Oregonians have since ended their life using the law. How To Die In Oregon is a powerful, compassionate exploration of Oregon’s historic and controversial Death with Dignity Act, which legalizes physician aid-in-dying for some terminally ill patients. The film tells the stories of people who died under the act, and follows the crusade of one woman who honors her husband by fighting for similar choices in the state of Washington.

Peter D. Richardson, the Director and Producer of this film took fours years to follow the lives of persons struggling with terminal illness as well as their families, friends and Doctors.

Using personal interviews with volunteers, advocates, and terminally ill patients throughout Oregon and Washington, Richardson paints a picture of these struggles but does so in a way that it affirms life as opposed to focusing on death.

Perhaps the most compelling story emerges with Cody Curtis, her family and her oncologist. Through Cody and those around her, director Peter Richardson created an emotional and life-affirming film which will help people everywhere better understand what it means to regain control of one's own end of life care when faced with a terminal illness and to die with dignity.

You can read first hand Cody's own account of her story HERE.

Cody was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma in December of 2007, at the age of just fifty-two. Cholangiocarcinoma is a cancer of the bile duct. Your bile duct runs through your liver.

According to Cody in her own words:
"The outcome is clear in my case. If you’re willing to look at what’s likely to happen, it’s fairly awful. People with this kind of cancer die of massive organ failure and it’s not pretty. And I already did that to my family last year, bouncing in and out of the hospital. My husband took six months of family leave from his job as a consultant. Our son was just back from the Peace Corps and was with me in the hospital every day. Our daughter flew home a number of times. "

"The hardest part about the Death with Dignity stuff is deciding when to take the drugs. It’s a totally loaded subject because for people who are religious it’s a mortal sin. I have friends who are religious and I don’t want to offend them. But it’s an important choice to have, instead of the model where we throw so much money at "treating” people who are dying. I’m extremely grateful to my doctors for leveling with me about the course of this disease, so my family and I have a choice about how and when to die."
So it begs the question again?  Who should decide what is best for you when you are terminally ill?  Why should we consider it to be somehow more "heroic" to suffer until we die a death which is inevitable?  And why are we so easy to send our young men and women into battle to die, yet object to some one's decision to have death with dignity? 

Isn't that the ultimate form of Liberty?   Death is not to be feared but honored.

HBO's documentary "How To Die In Oregon" premiered May 26 on HBO.  It may be watched at HBO On Demand (under documentary) or at these times.


  1. The answer is simple - you do. And if you feel that your condition is not giving you the quality of life that you want, no matter what that is, then you should be allowed to end it. None of us should judge others on how they want to die.

  2. Some rather face death then suffering, some rather suffer than face death. Who are we to judge. Doug

  3. This is a tricky topic, but I have to say, a sane person facing a life- ending illness or an illness that leaves them completely trapped in a body that does not work, I think has the right to his or her own exit. To not allow a person to meet death on that individual’s terms to me is immoral. I would guess that it would make things easier if we all wrote down our wishes for these circumstances and then amend them if our views change. To me there was nothing sadder than watching the spectacle of Terry Schiavo a few years back. The people who should have respected her wishes the most, held onto her not to prolong her life but to prevent themselves from facing her death. Funny, that they claimed to be so religious and so believing in a life much better than the one on earth. Religion is once again the route of the problem. Anna

  4. I saw this film. It made me appreciate living while healthy, so much more.
    The answer seems simple to me; if someone is dying from a terminal disease and there is no hope left the individual should have the control to minimize the agony of the inevitable.

  5. Sheila Nevins of HBO once again is responsible for getting such amazing projects seen by the public. The quality of her programming is remarkable.

    This documentary was heart wrenching.

    To answer the question asked of this article, I say it is the individuals choice and no one else. D. Miller

  6. If someone does not like the Death with Dignity Act then don't use it, but whether someone chooses to end their life with physician assisted suicide is their business and no one should have the right to tell them they can't do it. Whose life is it anyway? Kathy ( Texas)

  7. The Republican's, naturally. You know, the party that believes that individual rights trump everything else . . . except when their religion disagrees with your rights. Remember Senator Frist's tele-diagnosis of Terry Schiavo.


  8. People have the right to lose hope, but that's a sad situation. I realize not everyone believes in miracles. I still wish people wouldn't write themselves off as dead before it actually happens though. This is a form of suicide, which is the mind's decision to force the body to die sooner than God intended. I know a lot of people aren't religious, but to me, life is a gift and I will not try to take it with my own hands since I don't feel it's my choice to do so. People can go on and on about quality of life all they want, but I will NEVER give up on this life and I will fight for it until the end. You only get one.

  9. If people want to end their own lives, that's their own business. Me personally, I think that suicide is the cowardly way out of life. I just hope that this law never expands to FORCE doctors to provide these "life ending medications". If a doctor wants to break their oath to protect life, that's their choice...but it should never get to the point where doctors HAVE to help kill their patients. What I don't get about it is this; if these people are so desperate to end their lives, why don't they just DO IT? Why do they have to involve someone else? John Evans

  10. Mr. Evans, that's incredibly dumb and insensitive. You can drink Drano if you want but obviously there's nothing in your sentiment that's based on actual experience or understanding of true suffering. Get back to me when you see someone you love suffer beyond imagination. Barbara

  11. Twenty years ago, I stood by the hospital bed of my grandmother and watch the morphine drip speed up day by day. But that's not what this law is about. If you have a terminal illness and want to end it, then drink some Drano or hang yourself rather than corrupt the medical profession. Be a coward. Don't ask the government to do god's work. I am far from dumb.
    I am a catholic and take the bible at its word. It is a sin to take a life unnaturally. John Evans

  12. Mr Evans, may you never have to help someone die with cancer, or god forbid get stricken with a terminal illness. LONG LIVE society's decay if dying with my dignity is a side effect of it. If there is a god why would it want someone to suffer longer than they need to.

  13. I'm from Seattle. I'm so glad that we have this option in Washington. It seems that we care more for our pets not to let them needlessly suffer but it's o.k. for Aunt Jane to live in excrutiating pain due to cervical cancer that can't be cured, or cousin Joe who has inoperable brain cancer! I already have a living will that stipulates that if there is no more that can be done for me, no heroic measures! Don't hook me up to machines, and tubes just to prolong my death!! My family has better things to do than sit by my bedside as I die a slow, agonizing death. I don't want that for them!! I hope that everyone has a living will signed and where people can access it so they don't prolong the suffering of their family. Benny- Seattle Washington

  14. I am glad this option is available to those in need of it. Anyone who hasn't supported family members or friends in this time and situation has no grounds for comment, on some sort of moral soapbox. When my first wife died of terminal cancer, the medications she had may or may not have hastened her death, but one thing is certain, she was in command of her own decision. I would not want doctors, courts, or some screwy legislation to impede the capability of an individual and their family to make decisions which sometimes occur minute to minute. David P.

  15. To Mr. Thibodeau the writer of this blog- I like how you compare assisted suicides with death on the battlefield. You point out well the hypocrisy of how cavalier we view death in war of our youngest Americans yet become squeamish when we talk about the death of those with terminal illnesses.

  16. freedom. It's where it's at. People should have just as much freedom and control over their lives as their death.

  17. This posting really makes me want to see this film. Very thought provoking.

  18. Church out of government!

  19. Hell YES, get the fucking church out of my "state" of BEING.

  20. I'll watch this documentary to better educate myself on this question. Without seeing the film and based on this article i'd agree it should be the individuals choice. Heavy topic but one that most are in denial about and should not be.

  21. We as a country also send our military to KILL other human life, knowingly.
    Never mind possibly being killed themselves. Church and some government have very hypocritical ideologies.


  22. Didn't Jesus choose to die on the cross? Couldn't you call that assisted suicide?

  23. RE: anonymous at 10:22am: YOU SAY- "People have the right to lose hope, but that's a sad situation. I realize not everyone believes in miracles. I still wish people wouldn't write themselves off as dead before it actually happens though. This is a form of suicide, which is the mind's decision to force the body to die sooner than God intended. I know a lot of people aren't religious, but to me, life is a gift and I will not try to take it with my own hands since I don't feel it's my choice to do so. People can go on and on about quality of life all they want, but I will NEVER give up on this life and I will fight for it until the end. You only get one."

    You say life is gift from God and that you are religious. You say that god intends the right time for you to die. If you believe in god and the afterlife then why do you end your comment by saying don't take your life because" you only have one" life? That sort of contradicts the eternal life with the heavenly father. J. Jones

  24. Ms. Carol Walsh, your comment above is blasphemy. Jesus died for others.
    The tone of this blog is antichrist. Mary Kelly

  25. So it's okay to take your own life if you die for others?

  26. i think it's all about the money..pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, nursing homes.......and of course...our republican politicians...

  27. To Carol Walsh- Jesus died for our sins so that we could live in peace. How can you even question Jesus and use him as an example? He is not a human. He is our heavenly father. Shame on you. I only read this blog because it was cross posted on a christian website. It astounds me how immoral so many Americans have become. Mary Kelly

  28. Attn: Mary Kelly,

    I think you believe in fairy tales. You are victim of a very unholy hoax.
    Why in the hell would a loving god condemn a person from ending pointless prolonged pain.


  29. Mary,

    What does that mean "Jesus died for our sins"? He died two thousand years before we were born. What kind of God would have punished all His creatures for a sin committed at the beginning of mankind? And supposedly that sin was man wanting knowledge.
    Why in the first place should that sin be on the billions of children of Adam? And in the second place why couldn't an all-powerful and all -loving God forgive and be more understanding in a simpler way without having to send his "only son to die for our sins"? This is just a fanciful myth or wishful thinking for those of us who don't want to accept that we all are going to die someday and that's the end of us. But if we live our lives each die trying to make life better for everyone, something good does go on. In the meantime, there is no evidence there is a God. There is no evidence the spirit lives on after the brain dies. There is no evidence a God intervenes in our lives. There is no evidence that anyone has ever come back from the dead. But, there is evidence that life evolved from simple to complex, that we all die someday. That what we do in this life counts in this life and not for some eternal reward or punishment in an after life.

  30. Well, if one should be allowed to decide if life isn't worth living, then all depressed people should be given the choice between just sucking it up, or being killed. That's not going to happen any time soon, and so it should be.

    If one has but weeks to live, and they will be painful and terrible, there are lots of things than can be done to relieve the pain, and that is done too.

    There have been some small studies of how people that were prime candidates for "assisted suicide" were inrolled in programmes called "assisted joy of live" and such, and they all said that post-project they didn't want to die anymore. They had enjoyed a time which they thought could only be terrible.

    So give people the help they need to enjoy their last living days. If they want to die, let the kill themselves, starve to death, anything but let them put the responsibility of their death on another persons shoulders!

    If you're too scared to live, then at least have the decency to not demand someone else kill you so you don't have to face up to the horribleness of killing yourself prematurely!

  31. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  32. Trine- I disagree with you 100%. Watch the documentary and perhaps you will be enlightened.

    Morphine and all pain killers stop working at a certain point of illness. But the human could go on living for weeks. You speak from a place of ignorance. From science we have learned there is a more humane way.

    To Carol Walsh- Your explantation of the holy myth and the brilliance of living in the here and now without need of fictional stories to explain things, is spot on. Like you said, do great, kind thing for yourself and other humans. That is why it;s called MANKIND. Don't give that power and strength away to be "doing it" for god. A god that very likely does not exist. The "spirit" people speak of that "goes on living", I believe is done through memories that stay present in one's brain/heart. Loving memories of loved ones, animals etc. stay alive if we keep them in our thoughts. That is how one lives on. Bravo to you for your comment.

  33. Trine- Let a person shoot themselves or drink drano? The doctors only provide a medicine that kills them in a humane way. The patient still must drink it on their own. It is not injected by the DR.

    I suggest you watch the film and educate yourself.

  34. An honorable suicide, a dishonorable suicide, it's all semantics. The question is, do we have the right? Not only the right to seek assisted suicide but also the right to commit suicide in general.

    Our society is one based upon the foundation of freedom. For argument's sake, lets take the definition of freedom, in regards to the citizenry, to mean that you have the right to do as you please, as long as you do not negatively affect other citizens or society in general. If the question is posed in those terms, then yes we have the right to commit suicide. In my eyes, the only way you could argue that suicide negatively affects society is through religious morality. As we are a country with separation of church and state (supposedly) that argument holds no water.

    Yes, a suicide may cause some financial hardships for family members, or break a few hearts, but, ultimately it is a personal choice for the individual to make. Just, as it is your choice whether to cover your body with tattoo's, or to destroy your liver with heavy drinking, it is also your choice to end your body's functionality. It is your body after all. Not the states, not your family's. Ultimately, by not allowing citizens the right to choose whether they live or die, we are saying that there body's are not theirs but the states. How can we ever have a truely free democracy if our own bodies are not even ours?

  35. I just saw this film and I now agree 100% it should be the individuals choice. Great article.