In a quiet corner of American life, the question of the right to die has continued to foment although the best-known advocate of suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has died and the best-known organization, the Hemlock Society, dissipated in 2003.
The movement itself is stronger than ever. The Final Exit Network, for example, openly advocates the “human right to death with dignity” and is one of many such groups worldwide.
As former FEN medical director Dr. Lawrence Egbert wrote in a recent essay, “I solidly approve of the idea that competent individuals suffering unbearably should have the right to end their lives when their quality of life is personally unacceptable and their future holds only hopelessness and misery. Such a right should include when to die, where, and how.”
In April, Egbert, 83, was found “innocent of conspiring to assist in a suicide” in an Arizona case. Other investigations are taking place in such diverse cities as Athens, Ohio; Lincoln,
Nebraska; Mount Vernon, Washington; Middlebury, Connecticut; Washington,
D.C.; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Apparently, the prosecutors know nothing of human history. Assisted suicide has a long history. Ancient Greek stoics made a virtue of suicide. Doctors in the Greek and Roman societies supported ending lives rather than prolonging agony. In Athens, anyone wanting to die could get poison from city officials.
In ancient countries, children who were born ill or deformed were often exposed to the elements. Such efforts reduced chances that such defects would be passed along to future generations, although, sadly, some children died because of their gender or other non-medical reason.
Eskimos, for example, have long been noted for putting their infirm, elderly relatives on ice floes and sending them off to die. Their reasoning was simple: in such harsh conditions, few could survive unless everyone contributes. Those who could not would have to leave for the safety of the family.
On the other side, since the 1300s, Western nations have objected to suicide. “Laws in some parts of Europe dictated that a suicide's corpse be dragged through the streets or nailed to a barrel and left to drift downriver. The medieval ethos was distinctly uncongenial to any kind of self-murder," according to Ian Dowbiggin, in his 2003 book, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America.
Opposition has thawed in the intervening years. In 1980, the Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul 11, endorsed the right of patients to refuse “extraordinary means to sustain life.” In 1988, the Unitarian Universalist Association approved a resolution supporting the right to die.
Within two years, public opinion polls show that about of Americans support physician-assisted death, up from around 30 percent six decades earlier.
Australia briefly legalized euthanasia in 1995. The Netherlands and Switzerland eliminated criminal penalties for it soon after. Colombia has allowed euthanasia since 1997. Luxemburg followed suit in 2008.
This country, too, has seen a shift in attitudes. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the issue over to the states. By then, Oregon had already approved the "Death With Dignity" law. In 2007 alone, an estimated 46 people took advantage of the law there. A year later, Washington state voters agreed to allow “patients with six or fewer months to live to self-administer lethal doses of medication,” according to published accounts. A month after that, Montana approved the right of residents to request physician-aided suicides.
The change has come about because of improved medical treatment that has allowed people to live far longer and to die from chronic illnesses that dehabilitate and debase their existence. As a result, many people now have living wills, which request that no extreme steps be taken to extend life. In many states, patients can refuse medical treatment. For example, baseball slugger Harmon Killebrew recently announced he had stopped fighting his cancer and was moving into care of hospice. No one stepped up to protest his decision, or similar ones made by less-prominent individuals worldwide.
The moral questions entwined with euthanasia continue to bedevil onlookers, but increasing consensus seems to be moving toward an idea that once was commonplace thousands of years ago.
Author Bill Lazarus writes about contemporary topics. He can be reached via his website at www.williamplazarus.com