Dying with Dignity

All throughout college, one of my best friends, Alanna, received a People magazine subscription. Our senior year, they usually ended up on the coffee table in our apartment so my other best friend, Megan, could casually browse their contents. I enjoyed teasing them about keeping up with the Kardashians, but one day Alanna asked us if we had heard about Brittany Maynard. That month she was on the cover of People, and Megan, Alanna, and I found ourselves discussing her heart wrenching situation (…and I found myself reading People). I had never heard of “dying with dignity,” but our discussion left me rooting for Brittany and admiring her bravery. I could sympathize with wanting to avoid suffering, for her own sake, as well as her family’s.

This past interim session, I sat in on a meeting of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee. At the top of the agenda was “End of Life Options” – namely discussing a bill Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck is working on called the Utah End of Life Options Act. This bill would allow terminally ill, mentally-competent adults to receive a prescription from a physician. The patient could then choose to self-administer the medication, resulting in a peaceful passing.

This is never an issue I have felt particularly passionate about, yet I have now found myself in two different committee meetings discussing the matter. The more I think about it, the more I think it is the best and most humane option for those who are terminally ill. At both meetings, testimonies from terminally ill patients and their family members left me in tears. I simply can’t imagine what they’re going through.

Soon after my fifth birthday, my grandpa died from lung cancer. I was too young to fully understand what was going on or comprehend what he had been going through. However, my mom has often spoken of his last year. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was told chemo could extend his life another year. And it did. And it was miserable. I am not sure what he would think of the dying with dignity option or if it is something he would have considered. He’s gone, so I can’t ask him. But considering the pain, I think this option would have been more tolerable. His quality of life that last year was not good, and perhaps it could have been had this option been available or him. If anything, it would give me comfort now to know he had options rather than only a painful end.

Terminally ill patients who testified at the meeting spoke of what the bill would mean to them: empowerment; dignity; familial support; less fear of suffering. After listening to these testimonies and thinking about my own grandpa, I thought, “How could anybody be opposed to this?”

Of course, that was wishful thinking. There was opposition – and it incensed me.

A member of the legislature callously claimed, “Death is coming for all of us. We are all terminally ill.” Wow. His comment struck me as incredibly insensitive – there were people in the room currently going through treatment for cancer who had just spoken of how dying with dignity would lighten their burden. Yet apparently since we all ultimately face death, the “terminal” label should not apply to them or allow them this option of dying with dignity.

Among the arguments following the legislator’s was a testimony from the Sutherland Institute who shared the story of a man who had been given a terminal diagnosis. The man said he did not want to give up on life and wanted to continue fighting for his family. Another organization expressed concerns for families of patients choosing to die with dignity and the potential PTSD they could face. Both of these arguments struck me as genuine concerns, but negligent of the importance of individual choice. The man “choosing to fight” has every right to do so, but it is not fair to assume that those not pursuing his path have “given up” and should not have alternative options. The story of Brittany Maynard and the earlier testimonies showed that oftentimes families want what is best for their loved one, regardless of the pain they may feel after their passing. In the end, it should be the patient’s decision, and hopefully their families will support them in their choice.

The most bizarre argument of the hearing came from Margaret Dore, the president of Choice is an Illusion. Among her concerns were lack of oversight when it came time for the patient to administer the drug, as well as concerns of consent when the patient is evaluating their treatment options. Of course these concerns are valid, but assuming the legislation would not consider the potential for the “perfect crime” (her words, not mine) smells like a desperate attempt to paint the entire issue as something of a conspiracy theory. Her efforts to cast shadows of doubt on the process felt more like a fear-mongering tactic than a sincere effort to consider the patients whose lives would benefit from Rep. Chavez-Houck’s legislation.

These counter-arguments clearly rattled me, but I really admire Rep. Chavez-Houck for continuing to fight for this issue in Utah. Terminally ill patients already face a terrifying prospect, and if this choice lightens their burden in any way, it should be among our legislature’s top priorities. Legislators owe it to their constituents to provide them with opportunities and give them a broader range of choices in their life – especially at the end when things are especially uncertain.

-Madison Hayes

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