Hundreds gathered at the Chicago Cultural Center to learn about and debate so-called “Death with Dignity” legislation on Saturday. The event, sponsored by nonprofit advocacy group Compassion & Choices, included a panel discussion and screening of How to Die in Oregon, a 2011 documentary exploring the state’s physician-assisted suicide law.
“This is not about a political stance, it’s too personal,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee during the panel discussion. “Seventy-four percent of people in the United States believe that folks should have the choice of aid-in-dying. This cuts across all population areas and demographics.”
Proponents of “Death with Dignity” legislation argue that such laws increase patient autonomy at the end of life, because the seriously ill can avoid suffering and die on their own terms. In Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, terminally ill adults in their last months of life may self-administer a prescribed lethal dose of barbiturates.
“Brittany Maynard has changed everything. She has single-handedly transformed our whole movement from from one organization working actively in the field to a broad movement where all kinds of people are introducing bills and filing lawsuits and becoming active,” Lee added. “We will see bills advancing in many, many states. Her brazen visibility helped to increase momentum.”
Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed, moved to Oregon from California to take advantage of the state’s “Death with Dignity” law and ingested a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed barbiturates in November. After being diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in January, she chose to become a national spokesperson for Compassion & Choices. News of her death made headlines across the world and sparked social media debate regarding hastening death.
“Now that I’ve had the prescription filled and it’s in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. And if I decide to change my mind about taking the medication, I will not take it,” Maynard wrote in an op-ed published by CNN shortly before her death. “Now, I’m able to move forward in my remaining days or weeks I have on this beautiful Earth, to seek joy and love and to spend time traveling to outdoor wonders of nature with those I love. And I know that I have a safety net.”
Lee said many patients who fill their prescriptions for life-ending drugs never take them, because they only want the option of ending life. About 800 individuals have used the Oregon law to die since it was enacted in 1997.
But some disability rights groups, medical providers and religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, maintain that physician-assisted suicide is unnecessary and endangers the most vulnerable patients.
No physician, bioethicist or critic of physician-assisted suicide was represented on the panel, moderated by Alison Cuddy, program director of the Chicago Humanities Festival.
The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physician organization, strongly opposes physician-assisted suicide. The AMA maintains the policy is incompatible with physicians’ role as healer.
“It is understandable, though tragic, that some patients in extreme duress – such as those suffering from a terminal, painful, debilitating illness – may come to decide that death is preferable to life,” according to an AMA statement sent to Life Matters Media. “However, allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”
According to a 2013 poll conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine, 67 percent of more than 1,700 of its U.S. readers were against physician-assisted suicide.
Members of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes all forms of aid-in-dying legislation, turned out to voice opposition to “Death with Dignity” and the documentary, which centers on a terminally ill cancer patient who ingested a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed drugs.
“We want to make sure the disability angle is included, because all too often, people with disabilities voices are not heard or are stigmatized. We are here to ensure the audience understands that not everybody with a terminal illness wants the right to death,” said Scott Nance, a member of the nonprofit.
Physician-assisted suicide is legal in four other U.S. states: Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico.