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.