Physician-assisted death should be legalized

Cody Jones
Opinion Staff Writer
cjones7@unca.edu

Terminally ill people should be able to die in a dignified and humane way if that is what they want.

Physician-assisted death is legal in California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Colorado and Montana. These states — with the exception of Montana, where it was made legal through a court ruling — have so-called “death with dignity” statutes. The District of Columbia recently legalized it as well.

Under these statutes, doctors can prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill adults who request it. The patient must be deemed mentally competent and have a prognosis of six months or less to live. The process is filled with safeguards and checks to ensure the patient is making an informed decision.

Physician-assisted death is often confused with euthanasia and is therefore viewed more negatively. Euthanasia means the physician administers a lethal dose of medication whereas physician-assisted death means the patient ingests the lethal dose on their own. Around one-third of those who request the medication decide they do not want to use it after all — that they have the choice to do so at all is the important part.

The number of people who request and use the prescription is low. In 2014, 155 terminally ill patients in Oregon made a request and 105 of those patients used it. In 2015, there were 218 requests and 132 uses.

According to a Gallup survey from 2015, 68 percent of Americans think physician-assisted death should be legalized. Regardless of the question of legality, an increasing number of Americans also believe physician-assisted death is morally acceptable. In 2015, 56 percent said it is acceptable compared to 45 percent just two years prior.

Twenty-four states, including North Carolina, are considering similar bills this year. Rep. Pricey Harrison plans to reintroduce her Death with Dignity Act this session. The bill was attempted in 2015 — a first of its kind in North Carolina’s legislative history — but it never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.

There has been some pushback. In February, Congress attempted to overturn the District of Columbia’s law but they were unsuccessful. A similar attempt was made in Montana by their legislature but they were also unsuccessful.

Death with dignity laws are far from perfect as they are somewhat narrow in what they allow, particularly the limitation requiring a prognosis of six months or less to live. Alzheimer’s, for example, is a degenerative disease that can last for years. Since these laws state a patient must be considered mentally competent, they would likely be unable to make the decision by the time they have six months left to live. Despite the shortcomings of the laws, they are a good start since most terminally ill people have no choice whatsoever.

More states should work to adopt these policies and attempt to improve any weaknesses or flaws that are found. No one should be refused the right to die in a humane and controlled way if they are suffering from an incurable disease or illness. No family, friend or otherwise should be forced to watch a loved one in anguish simply because they cannot legally or safely choose to end their own life.

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