What is Assisted Suicide?

What is an assisted suicide?  Is it legal? Is it moral? Is it ethical?  Who decides?

Assisted suicide is often confused with euthanasia and is sometimes referred to as "mercy killing".  Physician-assisted suicide differs from euthanasia, which is defined as the “act of assisting people with their death in order to end their suffering, but without the backing of a controlling legal authority”.  To be a candidate for a physician-assisted death, a patient must have a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less to live. The specific method varies from state to state, but mainly involves a prescription from a licensed physician approved by the patient’s home state.

Should we not all have a say in when and how we die?  I know of many people who have informed their loved ones of their wishes, should they become incapacitated, or unable to make decisions for themselves. Directives such as that “no heroics” are to be performed to resuscitate, or to “not let me ‘live’ hooked up to machines” are quite common.

In 1997, the US Supreme Court ruled that the constitutionality of a physician’s assistance in a death would be left up to state jurisdiction.  Since then, several laws have been put into place, such as Death with Dignity Acts, and End of Life Acts, just to name a couple. Faced with fierce opposition such as the Catholic Church,  these laws have been put into effect in only eight U.S. jurisdictions, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Under these jurisdictions, physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing medications to hasten a death.

Assisted death has made many headlines over the years.  Few of us will forget the national debate over murder charges brought against Dr. Jack Kevorkian in 1998.  Dubbed “Dr. Death”, Kevorkian served eight years in prison after he was convicted of second degree murder for administering a lethal injection to a man terminally ill with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act, legalizing assisted suicide in California. He had conflicted emotions regarding the act about which he wrote that he thought about his own death while considering whether to sign the bill.  "I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill."

In Oregon, 20 years after the Death with Dignity Act was passed, DeathwithDignity.org reported in their 2017 annual report, that in total, 1,967 people have received end of life prescriptions, and 1,275 people have died by ingesting them.

On April 20th, 2017, Charlie and Francie Emerick allowed one of their daughters to document their decision and journey to their joint-assisted suicide.  Married 66 years, and both terminally ill with less than six months to live, Charlie, 88 and Francie, 87, held hands as they they fell into eternal sleep.  At their request, the documentary has since been edited into a film entitled “Living & Dying: A Love Story”. The intent of this film was to bring awareness to the amount of thought given to an assisted suicide.  It details the Emerick’s background, as well as their love for one another, and their resolve in being together in death as in life, on their own terms.

“We have a faith that says life is not to be worshipped,” Francie said. “It’s the quality of life that counts.”

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