non-fiction

It’s time for Colorado to debate assisted suicide

Do people in your extended family ever talk about the quality of the deaths of the dear departed? The conversation might go something like, “Aunt Gwen had that dreadful stroke, couldn’t walk or talk, and hung on for — what was it? — four more months?” Or “Grandpa Charlie downed a T-bone and his usual glass of whiskey, crawled into bed, fell asleep, and boom — heart attack. That’s how I want to go.” Or “I’ll never forget how Grandmother Agnes suffered all winter until she just gave up.”

We rate deaths — bad ones, good ones and many in between. Throughout these conversations, a common understanding floats unspoken in the air, that whatever happens, death is something that happens TO you, predetermined by God, fate or circumstance, but never by choice. Even if we eat our whole grains and buckle our seat belts, we don’t have much say in the quality of our final days.

A New Age guru, attempting to comfort his followers, once described death as just another mile marker along life’s journey. We’re born, endure puberty, grow wisdom teeth, reproduce, develop poor eyesight, dodder and then exit the highway, right on cue.

We get to make choices en route. We can choose to have our wisdom teeth removed under local or general anesthesia. We can choose marriage, a church wedding, an odd number of kids, contact lenses and Phoenix instead of Fort Lauderdale for our sunset years.

But when it comes time to die, we must forfeit to infinite powers our ability to choose. Must it be that way?

Assisted suicide is where one person helps another person voluntarily bring about his or her own death. The key word is “voluntarily” because the choice remains with the volunteer.

The pitfalls of assisted suicide are understandably controversial. It represents a conflict of interest with a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath. Some people fear that assisted suicide will threaten vulnerable populations, those ill-equipped to fend for themselves, and that, before long, genuine consent will become hard to guarantee. Some fear that once any form of assisted suicide becomes legal, our society will slide down a slippery slope toward involuntary euthanasia. Others have unshakable religious objections.

My wife, a veterinarian, is frequently able to “help an animal to die” and “have a peaceful death,” to borrow some of the language common to a profession where euthanasia is referred to as “the ultimate gift you can give your pet.”

Sometimes I feel we treat our dogs and cats better than we treat ourselves.

Assisted suicide is legal in Washington, Oregon and, by court ruling, in Montana. In Oregon, it’s referred to as “death with dignity.” In Colorado, it’s called “manslaughter.”

We’re only two states apart. Can the ideological gulf between Oregonians and Coloradans be so wide?

Until recently, I would have given the topic no chance of airing in the Colorado General Assembly. But times are different. With Democratic control of both houses, we’re witnessing substantive discussion about progressive topics like civil unions, gun control and ending the death penalty. Can assisted suicide be far behind?

Socially forward legislators in the General Assembly should bring this controversial topic into the light. Colorado may not be ready to accept assisted suicide, but we should be ready to debate it.

6 Responses to It’s time for Colorado to debate assisted suicide

  1. Connor MacKinney says:

    I can see both sides to Assisted Suicide. On one hand I would never want someone to have to suffer more than they have to and on the other I can easily see how people could easily abuse it. This is a very grey area in our morality and I don’t think we will all come to an agreement about this debate any time soon, but maybe we can start discussing. On a side note I really like the website design. Very industrial steam punk.

    • Art M., Dad says:

      Wow, do I ever agree that this needs to be debated. Conservatives will, of course, be aghast. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the option should be available, with appropriate safeguards. I have lived long enough to see two of my earlier family generations deal with death in a totally difficult–and I think unacceptable–way. I favor death that is voluntary, dignified, and graceful. I want it for myself obviously. I can comment further on this, but I probably don’t need to.

  2. Sue Ferguson says:

    THANK YOU for writing this column. I have often felt we are kinder to our pets than our parents. I watched my mother die a long lingering death that she did not want but I was powerless to change. More of us need to speak out on this issue.

  3. Nada MacKinney says:

    Yes, I think we should debate it in this country. I’ll admit that I — like Connor MacKinney — am not entirely sure where I stand. I firmly agree in principle with a person having the right to determine when she is ready to end her life. However “in principle” doesn’t always pan out as planned. Needing to guarantee that it can’t be abused — and knowing that few things can really be guaranteed — gives me pause. I think strong, reasonable safeguards could be put in place, and I don’t minimize that.

  4. Khishig says:

    As always I astonished with your columns. I completely agree with you that we should at least start debating on this issue. Once in a while I started thinking about this issue and I personally wish there would be that kind of service if when I needed. Thanks a lot for bringing the issue up.

  5. Diane says:

    You were spot on with the entire column and I wish that, as a society, we could have open and extensive conversations about this issue. Seven years ago, my almost 88 year old mother committed suicide because of her failing health and her adamant wishes that she not go into any care facility. When I mentioned this to my doctor, she said that it happens more frequently than people realize. It has never made sense to me that given the importance of choice in people’s lives, we deny one of the most important choices – to allow those we love to die with dignity. Thank you for shining a light on the subject. I have little hope that in my lifetime (I’m 69) anything will actually change, but given the advancement of other social issues right now, perhaps its time has come.

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