Spare me, Lord,
From those who say
That I need pain,
Till my dying day.

There’s no quick path to a new personal freedom. Whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, reproductive rights, or the right to die with dignity, winning is not easy.

There are always bitter opponents who feel somehow threatened by seeing an “unworthy” group of people relieved of prejudice and suffering.

Why is that?

Sociologists labor to find the answer. In the meantime, these social-change tsunamis are raging. Conservative states are doing their best to effectively ban abortion, a move that can only return the procedure to its back-alley days. Conversely, activists in many states are successfully crusading for gay rights with new legislation, initiatives, and lawsuits.

The political landscape changes every day, as battles are won and lost. Even the long-taboo topic of death with dignity is gaining traction.

Oregon and Washington passed laws in favor of peaceful death years ago. Efforts to pass similar measures have made headway in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Montana, and debate is expected on this kind of legislation later this year in Connecticut.

The right to die with dignity movement strives to make it easier for people to have a dignified, graceful death with minimal pain. Some measures supporting its goals are being struck down as too intrusive, as happened in Georgia last year. Elsewhere, advance directives, sensitive physicians, and quiet hospice care are helping terminal patients dodge the medical profession’s traditional protocol of wringing every last drop of suffering out of the dying.


Unfortunately, public dialogue on the subject often dwells on gruesome headline cases. Should the hopelessly-comatose patient have her life support pulled as her devoted husband desires, or should she be allowed to live out her “natural” days hooked to a respirator if that’s what her church and kids would prefer?

A more typical scenario is the helpless but cogent dying soul who needs assistance to escape without pain and indignity. Here common sense has a tough time prevailing, especially with elected officials. This sensationalism makes good theater, but bad law.

Also muddying the water is the term “suicide” itself, which suggests a dramatic choice between life and death. But we’re talking about cases where life is no longer an option — the point when death is hovering and the only question is what kind it will be. Maybe we need a new word for those final and painful moments.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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