Compassion for the dying is gaining traction. It’s about time.
In 1948, 37 percent of Americans supported the idea behind the “death with dignity” movement. Last year, 70 percent of us did. While that number leveled off two decades back, how big a majority does an issue need to be worthy of some attention?
As with plenty of other emotional questions, the numbers don’t matter a whole lot. Lawmakers are reluctant to mess with controversial human rights situations that require standing up to religious lobbies.
Courts, on the other hand, often plunge in where angels fear to tread. For example, a New Mexico judge recently ruled that residents there have a constitutional right to aid in dying, no matter what the polling shows or lawmakers fear.
“This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying,” Judge Nan Nash stated.
If it withstands an appeal filed by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, the case would bring the number of states with legalized aid in dying to five. Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont have led the way on this human right.
Connecticut is grappling with the challenge of how to guarantee the right to a death with dignity too. The votes appear to be there. But until state lawmakers quit stalling, the people who need relief will keep suffering.
The latest kerfuffle involved a Capitol hallway display of portraits of avid local supporters with their quotes. Connecticut House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, a Norwalk Republican who opposes the state’s aid-in-dying bill, deemed the posters too “political.” After they were removed upon his orders, it turned out he didn’t have that power.
The legislative session will probably end in May without a vote on a bill that would make it legal for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs for patients with less than six months to live. But the Hartford Courant is telling readers to expect a “showdown” next year.
This is a big issue in other countries too. Consider what happened when an Irish judge ruled against a suffering patient over there.
Suicide for the terminally ill is legal in Ireland, but assisting it is not. This put Marie Fleming in a dilemma. Devastated by multiple sclerosis, she was physically unable to perform the act herself, but if her partner Tom Curan had helped her out, he would have gotten 14 years.
Marie called that discrimination against the handicapped. The court called it tough luck. After she died in December, Curan vowed to honor her legacy by keeping up this campaign.
Much opposition to aid in dying is, not surprisingly, religious. Other more secular opponents simply look on it as immoral. Still others feel that permission to die early will lead to a flood of suicides, while organizations of the disabled fear that they will feel pressure to take their own lives.
Among these concerns, the only one easily researched is the fear of overuse. Fortunately, Oregon has examined this factor closely and found a reduction in late-stage suicides. For example in 2013, of the 122 qualifying applicants who actually got the deadly drugs across the state, only 71 took them.
It appears that either with or without having the actual pills in hand, just having them available can provide enough emotional relief from the fear of a dreary end.
And so the struggle for a poignant human right quietly rages on with a legislative victory here, a successful referendum there, and a favorable court decision somewhere else.
Just like the higher-profile struggle for LGBT rights, the death-with-dignity movement is gradually winning the day. In both cases, the success of narrow-minded opponents adept at jamming the democratic machinery has prolonged the suffering of the people they’ve never met.
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