At the end, we even had to turn to the police for help finding grandma. Once she walked out of her house and was missing for more than 24 hours.
Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s, my grandmother’s passing is the definition of what a dignified death should be. Her end may not have been the way she had envisioned, but my grandma was greatly loved and I cherish her memory.
What is a dignified death? This is not a rhetorical question, but one Californians have to actively consider now that SB 128, the End of Life Option Act, is being debated in Sacramento.
The bill is partly a response to the suicide of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. She committed suicide after moving to Oregon to utilize the state’s “Death with Dignity” laws.
Maynard is a strange poster child: any substantive review of the history of the Oregon statute, which California is using as a model, reveals that the median age of those who have legally killed themselves is 71 years. In fact, according to the Oregon state health department, of the 752 people who made use of of the suicide law between 1998 and 2013, only six were under 35 years of age.
The bill is misleading in various ways. According to SB 128, death certificates will say “the underlying terminal illness” was the cause of death. If you were to look up Brittany Maynard’s death certificate, you would see that it says she died of brain cancer, not by an overdose of barbiturates, the method by which she killed herself.
That’s a lie.
If allowing individuals to take their own lives is “compassionate,” why would we want the official record to falsify the cause of death?
The bill also uses the term “attending physician” in a misleading way. There is no requirement in the legislative language that any doctor or medical professional be physically present when the suicide takes place. In Oregon last year, the prescribing physician was known to be present at only 11 percent of the deaths, and no healthcare provider was present in 81 percent of cases. Medical experts estimate that approximately 25 percent of all those who take the poison experience complications likely causing more pain and suffering.
It gets worse.
According to SB 128, a doctor needs to confirm three things before helping you kill yourself: First, that you are terminally ill, with a “reasonable” expectation you will die in six months; second, that you are competent; and third, that you are doing this voluntarily.
The proposed law is designed for those who are very close to death, but a significant percentage of people who are diagnosed as terminally ill will live much longer than six months. How many of us have examples we can point to of family or friends who lived well beyond what doctors predicted? According to a 2006 Washington Post article, approximately 13 percent of those who enter into hospice care in the United States will be discharged alive.
This brings us to the question of competency. How many family physicians are qualified to determine whether or not a person is competent? Additionally, there is nothing in the bill that prevents the patient from simply going to another doctor to get the poison.
Supporters of SB 128 will argue that the dying should have the freedom to choose how and when they die. But is it really a voluntary choice when there are such tremendous pressures weighing on those facing a terminal diagnosis at the end of their lives?
The costs associated with long-term elderly care, hospice care and healthcare in general can weigh heavily on those living on fixed incomes. Many see themselves as a financial burden to their families. Those who despair after hearing that they are going to die soon may feel driven into a decision they do not really want.
If the state of California offers the elderly and the terminally ill the choice to kill themselves, then aren’t we, as a society, admitting our failure to care for them? Instead of stating publicly that we will do all that we can to comfort them when they need us the most, we will be telling the frail and the sick that their lives no longer matter, or worse, that we can no longer afford them. Now that would be terribly undignified.