Guest Column: Human Dignity & the Right to Die

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by Sue DeGregorio-Rosen, RN, CLNC, Contributing Editor

I have an advanced directive.  It’s simple, it states my wishes that if I were to be in a vegetative state, if there was no hope for me to live a life without medical and mechanical assistance, and I could not speak for myself, I have a “DNR” – Do Not Resuscitate document that states to let me go…….let me go peacefully, and leave me with my dignity, it is my choice to withhold treatment and let nature take its course.   

 I know that a DNR is not enough.  I know what happens in the hospital settings when death is near.  I am a nurse, a well-educated RN who has worked with burns/trauma/AIDS among others and my career has led me to the ICU and Emergency Department settings.  There is no death with dignity. We save lives, we don’t end life.  Not in my state, not in my universe.

In 1998 Oregon became the first state in this country a “right to die” initiative that became law.  Washington & Montana followed in 2009, Vermont in 2013, California in 2015, Colorado in 2016, D.C. in 2017, Hawaii in 2018, and NJ & Maine in 2019.  There are 9 states where one is permitted to choose when to cease their suffering through the use of medical aid in dying, each of us who reside in those states have the right to choose when our suffering should end.

There are other western countries, as in Switzerland and the Netherlands that allow doctors to respond to requests to end lives because of physical illness and/or severe emotional distress.

In certain eastern countries like Japan, suicide historically was viewed with tolerance and certain types of suicides as in major financial losses understandable and still in other types in the past, considered honorable.  

Suicide?  Who gets to decide?  Well, for one, we know where, as an option, this is legal, and its rightful title is Euthanasia. And then we have those who oppose this choice that see this choice, the right to die, as suicide. 

The discussion is controversial – it’s cultural, philosophical, legal, political and ethical. It is both genuine and serious enough to be had prior to any unseen event that might hinder a choice, a right, with care and compassion by those in charge. 

We should talk about death, not in the same sense as we see daily when talking about mass-shootings, war etc, but in end-of-life discussions.  We hide from talking about death.  We are afraid if we talk about death that it will in some way affect our inevitable fate.  I know we all understand that we all die, but as we live longer, it becomes more difficult to think about what lies ahead, it doesn’t seem real.  But death is just as important as birth, the cycle of life, and we can look forward, with courage to trust, love and honor this passage.  We just need to talk about it.

 I know what my wishes are.  I hope I have an option.  I want my wishes to be granted. I want my choice to be my choice made with respect and with dignity.

Is there nothing in the world in which a woman or man has more unequivocal title to than her or his own life?