I saw my father suffer twice: 1) When I was a junior in high school and he was going through Chemo Therapy to combat the cancer in his lymph nodes; 2) When I was a senior in college and he'd just come out of a 13-hour surgery with an uncertain future. As numbingly painful as his death was after that second round, if his diagnosis had been terminal, or if he reached a point where his suffering was too great, I would have fully supported his decision to die with dignity if he ever wanted to.
This is an intensely personal topic. And it's understandable why euthanasia is ripe for controversy: it doesn't adhere clearly to either party's politics, and it's morally ambiguous. But I firmly believe the compassionate answer is obvious: people who are suffering and want to end it on their own terms should have the right to say how and when they're going to die.
That's why I was upset to read on Wednesday that Massachusetts' move toward "Death with Dignity" was narrowly defeated by a margin of about 38,000 voters, with about 51 percent voting against physician-assisted suicide. The measure would have allowed the state's doctors to "prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally-ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person's life."
"Certain conditions" included the patient having six months or fewer to live and being judged mentally capable to make medical decisions. The patient would have had to submit the request twice orally and once in writing.
A similar law has been on the books in Oregon since 1994; more recently, Montana and Washington legalized physician-assisted suicide as well.
But the Massachusetts Medical Society officially came out against the measure, arguing that, "the proposed safeguards against abuse are insufficient." It's difficult to determine exactly when someone's six months would begin. More loftily, they reasserted the idea that "physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer."
Other efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in New England have failed. In 2000, a ballot initiative in Maine lost by a close margin. Legislative efforts to pass a similar bill in Vermont and New Hampshire have been defeated in recent years.
Terminally ill or critically paralyzed people who want to die and are not legally allowed are forced to continue suffering or take more dramatic actions.
A recent example is of Tony Nicklinson who fought to overturn Britain's ban on assisted suicide. He died August 22, a week after a High Court judge ruled that his doctor wasn't lawfully allowed to end his life. Nicklinson, 58, was a victim of "locked-in syndrome" after suffering a stroke in 2005. He died as a result of pneumonia compounded by the fact that he had refused to eat for several days.
His wife Jane and daughters Lauren and Beth were at his side.
His family had suggested that his defeat at the High Court had left him with a "horrific" option.
They described him as "something of an adrenaline junkie," a "hand-on, fearless type of guy" all his life, pre-stroke. People with locked-in syndrome are usually completely paralyzed, and are unable to speak or move. Sufferers can generally move their eyes, so they blink to communicate. Sitting at home, strapped in to a specially adapted wheelchair, Nicklinson described life as "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable."
After the court's ruling, before her father's death, Lauren told reporters how they would appeal and, if that failed, he was considering starving himself to death.
"He would rather have three months of the physical and mental anguish of starving himself than 30 years living locked-in," she said. She was pressed by reporters: Wouldn't she rather him alive than dead? Her answer was, "No, because it is so unbelievably painful to see someone you love so much hurt every single day and be able to do nothing about it."
Many don't consider euthanasia. But it is cruel to refuse those who do. It is a human right to die with dignity if a suffering person so chooses.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com