Tim Tan Huynh

Assisted Suicide

3 Nov 2014 — The right-to-death issue has made headlines these past few weeks. Brittany Maynard has been the central figure because of her recent enactment of assisted suicide under the Death with Dignity law.

Whenever I think of Oregon, I think of evergreen forests, Portland hipsters, and now…assisted suicide.

Joking aside, the debate about whether dying people have the legal and moral right to end their lives is serious. For better or worse, I think the mainstream media has only taken notice because an attractive, lively, and young woman in America has publicly announced she would knowingly and actively end her life.

A part of me is disappointed as Brittany tells her story. She doesn’t seem to have unbearable emotional and physical pain; rather, she’s lucid and even happy. My first reaction is, she’s given up too soon. Of course, the video can’t show her entire story, specifically her suffering, and one requirement of Death with Dignity is to be diagnosed with a maximum remaining lifespan of six months. Her happiness is, I’m sure, indicative of her inner peace.

I’m not opposed to the idea of assisted suicide or euthanasia. I’ve taken undergrad courses that have looked at this scenario from philosophical and psychological views, so the issue isn’t new to me. I can understand the arguments on both sides, and I respect people who passionately argue for one side, because they usually do so for the best reasons, namely, upholding the sanctity of human life and honoring the needs of near-death people.

I do think legislating assisted suicide or euthanasia is a slippery slope. Only three US states and a handful of European countries have it, probably because everybody else is very reluctant to act without deeper knowledge of the medical aspects and evaluation of their ethical beliefs, as they should be. Assisted suicide and euthanasia might follow marijuana and gay marriage, though; public opinion could be one-sided a decade from now.

If and when it is widely legal, I hope there are thoughtful and thorough safeguards. I think there should be things like long approval-periods and independently-appointed panels that review every case and then endorse the so-called best option. The panels should involve medical and mental health experts as well as professionals in other areas like ethics, insurance, and law; I would want laypeople, too.

The dying person should have the final say, but not the only say. Assisted suicide or euthanasia shouldn’t be done out of hopelessness, even though it is supposed to be the last resort. I think this concern is universal. A person who’s near death is unfortunate to be near death, obviously, but if that person can decide when and how to die, then the rest of us can only wish to be so fortunate when our time comes.

Two weeks ago, British-American academic and author Bernard Mayes died. Mayes founded the first US suicide-prevention hotline in 1961. Four days before Mayes’s death and five days before Brittany Maynard’s death, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas would have turned 100. He is possibly best known for his poem that’s written to his dying father: it famously opens with the line, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

I think society as a whole is unprepared for widely legal assisted-suicide and euthanasia: more thinking and talking needs to happen. However, Ms Maynard definitely had the “compassionate ear” that Mayes said was “really needed” (PBS NewsHour, 2014-11-02), and despite Thomas’s famous words, I think she did “go gentle into that good night.” Nobody can say either is a bad thing.